Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. 8000 Flour Exchange Building 310 Fourth Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55415 612.455.0500
Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. 8000 Flour Exchange Building 310 Fourth Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55415 612.455.0500

Court Rules That Employer Did Not Regard Plaintiff as “Disabled” Under ADA Despite Erroneous IME

Eighth Circuit Upholds Dismissal of ADA Claim Against Employer Who Rejected Applicant With Erroneous 30-Pound Lifting Restriction
In Conant v. City of Hibbing, No. 00-4046 (8th Cir. Nov. 26, 2001), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) against an employer who rejected a job applicant with a 30-pound lifting restriction. In the process, the Eighth Circuit made it harder for employees to successfully assert ADA claims under the theory that the employer “regarded them” as disabled.

The plaintiff-employee applied for a General Laborer position with the City. The City offered the applicant a position subject to completion of a pre-employment medical examination. The applicant then underwent the examination. The examining doctor had previously treated the applicant for a back condition. After examining the plaintiff again, the doctor issued a report to the City stating that the plaintiff should not lift more than 30 pounds and should not repeatedly bend or squat. Based upon the doctor’s report, the City withdrew the conditional offer of employment. The applicant objected and explained to the City that he had rehabilitated his back and could perform the duties of the General Laborer position without accommodation. He also asked the doctor to rescind the work restrictions. The doctor declined to lift the restrictions but advised the plaintiff to contact a physical therapist and undergo a Function Capacities Examination (FCE) to test his physical abilities. The plaintiff did so and the FCE revealed that he was fully capable of performing all of the essential functions of the General Laborer job. The plaintiff brought the results of the FCE to the City’s attention, but the City still refused to hire him.
Thereafter, the plaintiff sued the City alleging that the City “regarded” him as disabled within the meaning of the ADA and had unlawfully refused to hire him on that basis. The district court dismissed the claim and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this decision. The court acknowledged that the ADA does prohibit an employer from discriminating against a job applicant or employee because the employer erroneously “regards” the employee as disabled.The court, however, held that the City did not regard the plaintiff as “disabled” merely because the City regarded him as being unable to lift 30 pounds.

The court’s decision focused on the definition of “disability” under the ADA. First, the court noted that many prior decisions within the Eighth Circuit have concluded that 15-pound, 40-pound, 45-pound, and general lifting restrictions do not rise to the level of a “disability” under the ADA. Second, the court noted that the plaintiff was unable to provide any evidence that the City perceived him as having an impairment that significantly restricts the major life activity of working. Under the ADA, a person is considered disabled if they suffer from such an impairment. The court held, however, that the only evidence presented merely established that the City perceived the plaintiff as unable to perform the particular job for which he had applied. The plaintiff provided no evidence that the City perceived him as unable to perform other jobs. Third, the court concluded that an employer’s mere knowledge of an employee’s impairment or medical problems is insufficient to establish that the employer regards the plaintiff as disabled.

This decision is significant for employers for several reasons. First, lifting restrictions are quite common. The Eighth Circuit wisely held that employees under lifting restrictions are not necessarily “disabled” under the ADA. Second, the decision makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to successfully assert “regarded as” ADA claims. The court made it clear that the plaintiff must have some evidence that the employer regarded the plaintiff as “substantially limited in a major life activity” (such as working). It is not enough to show that the employer had some prior knowledge of the plaintiff’s medical conditions or that the employer regarded the plaintiff as only marginally impaired. The case is also interesting because the employer escaped liability even though the employer (apparently) had relied upon the results of an inaccurate medical examination. Even though the employee presented evidence that the results of the initial examination were incorrect, the employer was under no duty to reinstate the original job offer. The lessons for employers seem clear. First, employers should make sure to update job descriptions to accurately reflect lifting and other physical requirements. Second, if an applicant does not satisfy the job-related physical requirements, the employer should carefully communicate the reason for withdrawing the job offer to the applicant.
Employers should avoid making sweeping generalizations about the applicant’s medical condition or ability to hold other jobs. Instead, employers should simply state (as did the City) that the job offer is being withdrawn because the results of the medical examination reveal that the applicant is not qualified for the particular position in question.

If you have any questions about the Conant decision, or need assistance in a lawsuit concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act, please contact one of the employment law attorneys of Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A.
About the Author:
Minnesota employment law attorney Craig W. Trepanier routinely represents employees and employers in disputes involving the ADA and disputes involving other state and federal anti-discrimination statutes. Craig may be reached at 612.455.0502 or Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. is a Minnesota employment law firm located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.