Monthslong Inability to Work Dooms ADA Claim

By Jeffrey Rhodes March 10, 2021
woman wearing hard hat

A machine operator could not pursue Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims against a company when it fired her because she could not do any work for several months, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The plaintiff worked for Innovation Ventures LLC, a supplement company that produces 5-hour Energy drinks. She worked as an assembly-line worker through a staffing company, then applied and was hired for an assembly worker position. She was later promoted to machine operator.

In June 2016, a serious car accident left the plaintiff with significant head and back injuries. Her surgeon performed spinal surgery that involved a herniated disc, spinal cord compression, central cord syndrome, a closed-head injury and a complex multidirectional laceration.

Shortly after her injury, the plaintiff sought short-term disability benefits and medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Her spinal surgeon submitted an FMLA certification that described her injuries and stated that she could not perform any and all functions until Sept. 8, 2016.

On Aug. 24, 2016, the spinal surgeon's assistant notified Innovation that she did not think that the plaintiff was ready to go back to work, estimating another six weeks before she could return.

Innovation'­s HR department then reached out to the plaintiff because her FMLA leave had expired. At an Oct. 26, 2016 meeting, the plaintiff notified the department that she still could not return to work. Innovation told her that according to its policy, an employee unable to return to work after six months of leave would be terminated.

The plaintiff notified Innovation that she had scheduled her neuropsychological evaluation with another doctor. Innovation granted her request for additional leave, set to expire at the time of her follow-up appointment with her spinal surgeon on Nov. 14, 2016. By the time of that appointment, however, her doctor had not completed his testing.

The spinal surgeon's office sent another work status report to Innovation, this time estimating that the plaintiff could not return to work until February 2017 to allow her doctor time to finish his testing. The plaintiff again spoke with the HR department, but Innovation declined to extend her leave any further and instead terminated her on Dec. 14, 2016.

After her termination, the plaintiff applied for long-term disability benefits and Social Security disability insurance benefits. After completing her testing, her doctor opined that most of her mental functions were within the normal range or almost above normal range. He believed that the plaintiff could gradually return to work, and by June 2017, she would have no restrictions.

The plaintiff also applied for long-term disability insurance benefits in February 2017, recounting difficulties performing basic household tasks and problems with memory, balance, arm and hand tremors, neck and muscle pain, and numbness in her foot. The insurance company granted her long-term disability benefits until October 2018, when it determined she no longer had functional deficits that would support an inability to return to work as a machine operator.

The plaintiff sued Innovation in November 2017, alleging that it failed to accommodate her under the ADA, and bringing several causes of action for discrimination. Innovation filed a motion for summary judgment on all the plaintiff's claims. The plaintiff only defended her failure-to-accommodate ADA claim.

The district court granted Innovation's motion in full. The court found that the plaintiff was not qualified under the ADA. Alternatively, the district court found that the plaintiff was prevented from arguing she was qualified, because she received disability benefits premised on her inability to work.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit reasoned that inability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA. The court recognized the possibility that a brief period of leave to deal with a medical condition could be a reasonable accommodation in some circumstances, particularly for intermittent conditions. However, it found that an individual with a more sustained condition that renders her unable to perform any job whatsoever for a long period is disqualified under the ADA.

The 7th Circuit thus upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff's claims.

McAllister v. Innovation Ventures LLC, 7th Cir., No. 20-1779 (Dec. 30, 2020).

Professional Pointer: While time off from work for definite periods may qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, indefinite leave does not. Note that the 7th Circuit takes a narrower view of when leave might be required as a reasonable accommodation than other appeals courts, which are more likely to find that leave is a reasonable accommodation.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.



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