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Work restrictions alone not enough to show employee suffered a disability under ADA

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

Though the Nissan employee was undisputedly denied a desired transfer because of work restrictions resulting from a neck injury, he had been able to perform his assembly line job for over a decade after the restrictions had been placed upon him by his physician.

Just because an automotive factory employee had work restrictions that prevented him from being awarded a desirable transfer, that did not mean he was disabled under the ADA, the Sixth Circuit ruled in affirming dismissal of his disability bias claim on summary judgment. He also could not revive his claim that Nissan failed to accommodate him by pressuring him to remove his work restrictions after his position was restructured since, in addition to failing to show that he was disabled, he didn’t refute that he was allowed to remain in the pre-restructured position until he sought medical advice about his work restrictions and testified that he did not disagree with his doctor’s revisions to his restrictions (Booth v. Nissan North America, Inc., June 7, 2019, Nalbandian, J.).

Medical restrictions. After the employee started working at a Nissan factory, he injured his neck and sought medical treatment. His doctor recommended several permanent work restrictions, including not reaching above his head or flexing his neck too much. These restrictions did not affect his ability to perform his job duties and he continued to work on the door assembly line without incident for about a decade.

Years later, denied transfer. His work restrictions became an issue in the fall of 2015, when he requested a transfer to a more desirable material handling position. After HR informed him that his work restrictions conflicted with the position’s requirements, he met with a manager in the medical department, where he was again told that his restrictions prevented him from performing the job. He continued to pursue the matter with his supervisors into 2016 while remaining in his assembly line position.

Job duties change. Meanwhile, around the time that he requested the transfer, Nissan announced plans to restructure the assembly line so that the employee and his coworkers on the door line would go from performing two jobs to performing four jobs. When he met with HR in November 2015 to discuss the material handling position, he reported that the two additional jobs would violate his work restrictions and again asked to transfer to the “easier and simpler” material handling position. Though he wasn’t allowed to transfer, he was allowed to continue working just the two jobs. However, his supervisor warned him that Nissan was “not going to have a job for [him]” unless he changed the restrictions.

Pressured to get restrictions removed. To prevent that, management told him to see a doctor to assess whether his restrictions were still medically necessary. He reluctantly did so, and his doctor modified the restrictions so that he was cleared to work all four jobs. After informing his supervisors about the revised restrictions, Nissan determined that he could work the full, four-job position and allowed him to work on the assembly line in the restructured role. He then filed this lawsuit alleging ADA claims of failure to accommodate and disability discrimination, which the district court dismissed on summary judgment.

Failure-to-transfer claim untimely. The employee’s disability bias claim was untimely since he was advised that his transfer request had been denied in November 2015, which was over 300 days before his EEOC filing. The Sixth Circuit rejected his contention that the final decision had not been made until the fall of 2016 since the company allowed his request to speak with other supervisors after learning that his request had been denied. “Nissan’s decision was no less final, simply because Nissan supervisors explained the company’s decision to [the employee] several times in 2015 and 2016.” Those discussions “did not reset” the 300-day filing deadline.

Not disabled. His clam also failed on the merits since he could not demonstrate that he was disabled under the ADA, despite his assumption that he made this showing since he had work restrictions and was denied a transfer request based on them. Notably, several prior Sixth Circuit decisions had held that “simply having a work restriction does not automatically render one disabled… nor does being unable to perform a discrete task or a specific job.”

Though those cases predated the 2008 amendments to the ADA, Congress did not modify the definition of the major life activity of working. A plaintiff who alleges a work-related disability must still show that her impairment limits her ability to “perform a class of jobs or broad range of jobs.” Thus, the fact the employee’s neck injury and related work restrictions kept him from working in the material handling role did not resolve whether he was disabled. Rather, he was required to show that his condition precludes him from working in a class or broad range of jobs, “such as… assembly line jobs,” which he failed to do. Indeed, he admittedly worked without interruption on the assembly line since injuring his neck in 2004 and had continued to do so since this litigation began.

No failure to accommodate. The employee also failed to revive his claim that Nissan failed to accommodate his disability after it modified its assembly lines by pressuring him to remove his work restrictions rather than accommodating his limitations. This claim not only failed because he couldn’t show that he was disabled, but also because Nissan simply never failed to accommodate him. Rather, it allowed him to remain in the pre-restructuring position after he alerted his supervisors that the two new tasks conflicted with his work restrictions and allowed him to remain in that role while he sought medical advice about his work restrictions.

Indeed, Nissan did not move him from the two-job position until it reviewed his doctor’s report and determined that his work restrictions did not conflict with the modified positions on the assembly line. Moreover, the employee never suggested that he misreported his symptoms or otherwise encouraged his doctor to modify the restrictions in order to preserve his job. Rather, he testified that he did not disagree with his doctor’s revisions to his work restrictions.