Employer Did Not Violate ADA by Having Doctor Reassess Restrictions

 

By Jeffrey Rhodes August 21, 2019
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​Nissan did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it required an employee on its assembly line to have a doctor review his restrictions to determine if they could be adjusted to allow him to perform more tasks, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided.

After the plaintiff started working at a Nissan North America Inc. factory in Tennessee, he injured his neck and sought medical treatment. The plaintiff's physician recommended several work restrictions, including that he not reach above his head or flex his neck too much. The restrictions did not prevent him from working. Instead, he continued working on the assembly line for about a decade without incident.

In 2015, the plaintiff requested a transfer from the assembly line to a material handling position in the factory, which he believed to be less stressful and thus more desirable than the assembly line. In November 2015, the plaintiff's supervisor denied his request because the duties conflicted with his work restrictions. The plaintiff requested to speak with other supervisors after learning that Nissan had denied his transfer, which Nissan allowed. The other supervisors explained the company's decision to the plaintiff several times in 2015 and 2016.

Soon after the plaintiff requested the transfer, Nissan announced plans to restructure the assembly line. While the plaintiff and his co-workers on the line had performed two discrete tasks, Nissan wanted to modify the line so that its workers would perform four jobs.

The plaintiff claimed that the two additional jobs would have violated his work restrictions, and Nissan told him to see a physician to assess whether he still needed the restrictions. The plaintiff followed that request, and the physician modified the restrictions. Among other things, the physician removed entirely the restriction on flexing his neck and limited the restriction on overhead reaching to the plaintiff's left side. These changes to the plaintiff's restrictions cleared the plaintiff to work all four jobs.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Nissan in federal court claiming disability discrimination and failure to accommodate in violation of the ADA. Nissan filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the claims before trial, which was granted.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

On appeal, the 6th Circuit considered whether the plaintiff's claims were timely and whether he demonstrated that he had a disability. The court determined that Nissan had denied the plaintiff his requested transfer in November 2015, which was more than 300 days prior to the date in which the plaintiff filed his charge of discrimination with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission. Because Nissan never reconsidered its initial decision to deny the transfer, the 6th Circuit found that the plaintiff's ADA claim concerning the transfer was untimely.

Similarly, the 6th Circuit found that the plaintiff failed to show that he had a disability as required by the ADA. None of the plaintiff's claims nor his evidence demonstrated that his restrictions limited his performing a class of jobs or broad range of jobs. While the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 made it easier for an employee to show the existence of a disability based on a recognized medical condition, it did not lower the requirement of having a disability to merely demonstrating that one has a work restriction. A plaintiff claiming to have a disability due to a substantial limitation on the major life activity of working must still show an inability to perform many jobs and not just difficulty performing one job for a particular employer.

Finally, the 6th Circuit determined that Nissan had not failed to accommodate the plaintiff, because it never required him to perform duties prohibited by his work restrictions. Nissan respected the plaintiff's limitations while his original work restrictions remained in place. It did not require him to perform four jobs until after his doctor modified the work restrictions to allow it. Because the plaintiff did not disagree with his doctor's modification of his work restrictions, Nissan's expansion of his duties did not violate the ADA.

Booth v. Nissan North America Inc., 6th Cir., No. 18-5985 (Jun. 7, 2019).

Professional Pointer: In the 2008 ADA Amendments Act, the ADA was expanded to recognize many medical conditions as disabilities. Nevertheless, an employee under a work restriction does not have an automatic right to a preferred position or to prevent having the restriction re-evaluated from time to time, based on the legitimate business needs of the employer.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Americans with Disabilities Act.]

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