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Summary judgment favoring employer was unwarranted in disability bias case by salvage yard manager fired for torn ACL

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

The regional manager admittedly told the employee that her ACL injury was the reason for her termination but claimed that the actual reasons her employment ended, which he did not tell her, were because of a “multitude of [her prior] offenses and incidents of behavior.”

A Michigan federal court erred in concluding that an auto parts salvage yard manager failed to adduce sufficient evidence of an “actual” or “regarded-as” disability under the 2008 amendments to the ADA, the Sixth Circuit concluded in an unpublished decision. The court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment favoring the employer and remanded the case for further assessment of the remaining elements of the employee’s ADA claim (Harrison v. Soave Enterprises L.L.C., September 10, Bush, J., unpublished).

The employee served as manager at a self-service used auto parts salvage yard, where her responsibilities included inspecting the yard two to three times per day in a John Deere “Gator” vehicle to check for improperly placed cars, monitoring employees, and assessing holes in the fence to help prevent theft. After a regional manager documented underperformance at the facility—including holes along the fence, poorly inspected vehicles, slacking employees, and a deficient video feed monitor—he mandated changed procedures at the yard. Among other things, the new procedures required that the yard manager randomly spot-check five cars each day prior to their placement in the yard in order to ensure that all dangerous car parts had been properly removed. To conduct the spot checks, the employee had to look under each car’s hood and confirm that all the engine fluids had been drained, and then inspect beneath the vehicles to confirm the removal of the catalytic converters. The latter duty required that she physically kneel down and view the underbelly of the car being inspected.

The new inspection duties posed difficulties for the employee, who previously had suffered a torn ACL injury that made kneeling down painful and/or impossible for her. To address her inability to kneel, the employer provided her with a mirror on an extension arm, which she used to view the undercarriage of cars and confirm that the catalytic converter had been removed. The mirror allowed her to perform all her work-related duties without any limitation, and she had not requested any other accommodation from the employer to enable her to perform her duties at the yard.

Employee’s termination. The employee was let go from her position by the regional manager, who indicated to her that she was being terminated because she no longer could perform her duties because of her torn ACL. No other explanation was provided for her termination. In his deposition, the regional manager admitted that he had told the employee that her ACL injury was the reason for her termination, but claimed that the actual reasons her employment ended, which he did not tell her, were because of a “multitude of [her prior] offenses and incidents of behavior.”

Discrimination claims. The employee sought and received a right-to-sue letter from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, after which she filed a two-count complaint against her former employer in Michigan federal court. Her first cause of action alleged that her termination violated the ADA, classifying her torn ACL and “medical obesity” as qualifying disabilities. Her second cause of action alleged that the employer violated Michigan’s civil rights statute based on its alleged weight discrimination against her. Central to the employee’s claims was the regional manager’s statement that she no longer could perform her managerial duties because of a torn ACL.

Trial court’s decision. Upon the completion of discovery, the employer moved for summary judgment on both counts, arguing that the employee was not a qualified person with a disability under the ADA and that she had neither required nor requested a reasonable accommodation for her alleged disability (which rendered her ADA claim moot). The trial court granted summary judgment favoring the employer, concluding that: (1) the employee failed to present medical evidence of her knee condition to create a genuine issue for trial that she was either “actually disabled” or “regarded as” disabled under the ADA; (2) even if the employee had alleged a sufficient disability, she extinguished any potential claim of her employer’s refusal to accommodate given her failure to have presented any evidence that the employer had refused her requested accommodation; and (3) although she had presented evidence of a prima facie case of weight discrimination under the state law, she failed to offer proof that the regional manager’s legitimate rationale for her firing—i.e., her inconsistency in performing vehicle spot checks—had been pretextual.

Arguments on appeal. The employee appealed only her ADA claim, arguing that the trial court incorrectly applied the analysis in case precedent in concluding that she was not disabled under the federal law. She further contended that the lower court erred in determining that she failed to prove that her employer “regarded” her as disabled and terminated her because of that perception. Alternatively, she argued that even if her claim based on direct evidence of discrimination failed, the trial court failed to conduct burden-shifting analysis based on indirect evidence.

Qualifying disability. Among the elements required to prevail on a claim of disability discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that he or she is disabled. This can be established by demonstrating that the claimant: (1) is “actually disabled” (meaning that the individual possesses “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual”); (2) has “a record of such an impairment”; or (3) is “regarded as having such an impairment.” In the instant case, the employee asserted that she was “actually disabled” or that she was regarded by her employer as “having such an impairment.” In concluding that the employee’s evidence was insufficient to create a jury issue under either approach, the trial court erroneously relied on a prior case that applied a stricter standard for establishing disability, the appeals court held, noting that the stricter standard no longer governs following the 2008 amendments to the ADA.

Framed properly in light of post-2008 ADA case law, the proper inquiry was whether the employee had submitted enough evidence to show that she was substantially limited in her ability to kneel or walk, the appeals court said, concluding that based on precedent applying the post-2008 ADA standards for disability, the employee presented sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

Physical impairment. The employee satisfied the first element of a prima facie case of disability discrimination under the ADA because she showed that she had a physical impairment; namely, the torn ACL. In addition, the employee presented sufficient proof to establish that her physical impairment substantially limited a major life activity—kneeling—which fits comfortably within the non-exhaustive list of “major life activities” provided in the statute and its implementing regulations. Moreover, a reasonable juror could determine that most of the general population can kneel and do not share the employee’s physical limitation. Therefore, because the employee’s physical impairment—her knee injury—”substantially limits one or more major life activities,” the trial court erred in holding as a matter of law based on the record that she was not “actually disabled” under the ADA. There was a genuine dispute regarding whether she was “actually disabled” under the Act, which necessitated reversal of the lower court’s grant of summary judgment based on that issue.

“Regarded as” disabled. Given her employer’s knowledge of her knee injury, the employee also presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that she had a qualified ADA disability under the “regarded as having an impairment” by her employer prong of the analysis. Applying the post-2008 “regarded as” standard to the instant case, a genuine dispute of material fact remained with respect to the employee’s perceived disability and her employer’s perception of such, the appeals court found.

The record indicated that the employer knew about the employee’s ACL injury because the regional manager had referenced that injury during her firing. This was more than enough evidence from which a reasonable juror could find that the employer genuinely believed that she had a knee injury that affected her ability to kneel and work. As such, her condition represented a disability that would qualify as a “physical impairment” under the ADA given that it affected her musculoskeletal system. Furthermore, the five-year time span between her ACL injury and her termination suggested that her impairment was neither minor nor transitory. Accordingly, the employee presented sufficient evidence that would enable a reasonable jury to find that she satisfied the “regarded as” avenue of a qualifying ADA disability.