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Multiple sclerosis could be disability under Iowa law if major life activity impaired during flare-ups

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

Reversing summary judgment in favor of an employer, an Iowa Supreme Court majority held that multiple sclerosis could constitute a disability under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) if an employee produces evidence that the condition substantially impaired one or more major life activities during flare-ups, even if it did not do so while in remission. Also, the employee generated a fact issue on whether he was qualified to perform the essential functions of his position, even on a record limited by the lower court’s order aborting discovery, and a jury issue with regards to the reasonableness of his requested accommodations. The high court remanded the case for further proceedings. Justices Waterman and Mansfield dissented (Goodpaster v Schwan’s Home Service, Inc, June 27, 2014, Cady, M).

The employee worked as a customer service manager for Schwan’s Home Service, a position that entailed selling and delivering products to customers at their home or business. In order to do the job, he had to be able to drive a commercial vehicle and meet DOT requirements. In late 2008, after experiencing symptoms including loss of eyesight, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He continued to work and, over the next year and a half, experienced occasional “flare-ups” while working. During those episodes, he would have impaired vision and loss of control and strength in his limbs. His doctors recommended that he stop working and relax during those episodes. However, he did not have any medical restrictions.

Accommodation requests. The employee occasionally asked his employer for certain accommodations, including rearranging his route, allowing another employee to transport him from a location on his delivery route during an episode, and asking for another employee to ride with him as a backup driver. Although his route rearrangement request was granted, his other requests were not. He also sought a transfer to a warehouse job, but was never interviewed for an open position.

Termination and summary judgment. After he was removed from one of his most profitable routes, the employee’s sales began to decrease. He was given written warnings and, ultimately, terminated. He filed suit against the employer and the location manager under the ICRA, alleging disability discrimination and retaliation. Both defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming the employee did not have a qualifying disability and that he was not qualified to perform the job’s essential functions, either with or without a reasonable accommodation, among other contentions. The employee moved to compel discovery so that he could fully resist the proceeding, but his request was denied. The district court granted the employer’s motion on all claims and the employee appealed.

Multiple sclerosis is a disability. After explaining the superseding effect of the federal ADA Amendments Act on the U.S. Supreme Court’s holdings in Sutton v United Air Lines, Inc. and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v Williams, the Iowa Supreme Court majority explained that it did not agree with the employee’s contention that the 2008 amendments required it to interpret the state law to include the disorder. Nevertheless, the state high court recognized the impact of federal statutes on analyzing the state law and the state act’s exhortation in favor of broad construction. Noting that Toyota and Sutton were, instead, “explicitly built upon a core premise” of strict interpretation, the majority found that the two cases were “inapposite to any discussion of the meaning of the ICRA.”

Instead, the court was guided by early interpretations of the state statute and, specifically, recognition of three categories of disabilities under the law. Multiple sclerosis, the court explained, was “very likely” in the category of disabilities that were “on their face” acknowledged as “substantial handicaps.” The court further explained that, unlike federal law, Iowa law had “never contemplated that a disability could not be intermittent or episodic.” Furthermore, the court noted that the regulations defining disability were “based heavily” on definitions found within the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and that many cases applying that statute had considered multiple sclerosis to be a disability, “often without any significant inquiry into the issue.” (Federal cases prior to Toyota had also considered it a disability, or considered that it could constitute one based on evidence of impact.)

Based on that examination, the majority held that multiple sclerosis could constitute a disability under the state law, if the employee presented evidence that it substantially impaired one or more major life activities during flare-ups, even if there was no impairment during remission.

Substantial limitation. In this case, the employee had presented a genuine issue on whether his condition substantially limited major life activities by testifying that, during flare-ups, he experienced vision impairment, fatigue, memory loss, and loss of limb control. The cases cited by the defendants to poke holes in the idea that the employee was substantially limited hailed “from an era of federal law in which the ADA turned a blind eye to victims of episodic ailments,” the court explained, and other cases cited were not consistent with the Iowa law. Thus, the majority found that the employee had “at least” created a jury question regarding whether his condition substantially limited one or more of the employee’s major life activities.

Otherwise qualified. Additionally, the employee had to be able to show that he was qualified for his position, with or without an accommodation. The main qualification at issue was the required DOT certification. An employer could defend, under the ADA, a termination based on DOT regulations regarding visual acuity for commercial drivers, the court explained. Federal regulations related to commercial licenses required a case-by-case analysis of neurological conditions and relevant authority indicated that people with multiple sclerosis could obtain certification. In fact, the record in this case showed that the employee was recertified to drive in 2008 and 2009, although the record was unclear about whether the certifying doctor was aware of the diagnosis each time. Thus, a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether the employee was qualified to perform the essential functions of the job without accommodation.

Reasonable accommodations. The employer claimed that the accommodations requested by the employee were unreasonable. However, the record was underdeveloped on this issue, the court concluded. Therefore, the lower court’s actions in granting summary judgment and rejecting the employee’s request for further discovery “should not now be used” by the employer to support a claim that there was no record evidence supporting a triable issue on whether the requested accommodations were reasonable. The employee also presented a jury issue on whether his termination was motivated by his disability. All justices except two concurred and the case was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Dissent. Justice Waterman, joined by Justice Mansfield, dissented, and contended that the district court correctly granted summary judgment. The majority, Waterman explained, did not explain how the employee could be found disabled when he was capable of other satisfactory work and had obtained other employment, nor had it explained how the employee’s requested accommodation of a second driver to relieve or accompany him was not unreasonable as a matter of law. According to the dissent, this case was even “more clear-cut” than prior cases where the court had found that the plaintiff’s “employability” was not sufficiently curtailed as to qualify him or her as a “disabled person” under the state law.

Moreover, Waterman explained, if the employee was disabled because his condition “sometimes impaired his driving,” then he could not show that he was qualified to perform the job’s essential functions. Finally, the dissent also disagreed that a material fact existed regarding whether the employer fired the employee because of his condition. “By allowing” the employee to continue with his claim, Waterman lamented, “the majority does a disservice to those who truly are substantially limited in their ability to work.”