A federal district court in Michigan recently granted summary judgment for the plaintiff, (you read that correctly), ruling that the employer was liable for disability discrimination as a matter of law. (Lafata v. Dearborn Heights Sch. Dist. No.7 (E.D. Mich. 12/11/2013)). A plaintiff hardly ever files for summary judgment in an employment case, let alone wins the motion. So what happened here?
The Plaintiff applied for a position as a Plant Engineer with the Defendant School District. For ten years prior to applying for the job, Plaintiff worked as a building supervisor at a community center. In that job, he was responsible for complete maintenance, inside and outside the building, minor plumbing and electrical work, roof repairs, and all tasks associated with set up and care of the community pool and ice skating rink. He regularly used ladders and carried objected weighing more than forty pounds.
The School District offered the Plant Engineer position to Plaintiff, conditioned upon a physical exam showing he could perform the essential functions of the job. The job description for the position was very general, and did not identify specific tasks or physical demands. The physician who did the pre-employment physical diagnosed the Plaintiff with Charcot Marie Tooth syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes muscle deterioration and gradual loss of strength. But, the doctor did not ask any questions about the Plaintiff’s physical symptoms or his work history. The doctor expressed concerns about Plaintiff using a ladder because he could not “purposely dorsi-flex his foot up or down as he might to have to maneuver while climbing on a ladder." He also said a forty pound lifting restrictions was a “fair number” based upon his estimation of Plaintiff’s strength, which he assessed by watching Plaintiff climb onto the examination table.
The doctor had a telephone conversation with the Assistant to the Assistant Superintendent, during which he verbally told her about his findings and restrictions. The Assistant shared her notes of the telephone conversation with her boss (the Assistant Superintendent) and the Director of Operations. They decided, without any further information or documentation, to revoke Plaintiff’s conditional job offer. The reason: Plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of the job. They testified decision was “somewhat automatic”, based upon the restriction against ladders and lifting more than forty pounds. They likened the Plaintiff’s physical restrictions to a an applicant who has a felony history—it disqualified him in and of itself.
The School District lost this case at the summary judgment stage for two reasons. First, the information it relied upon about the Plaintiff’s restrictions was woefully inadequate. District personnel took everything the doctor told them at face value, without having any information about the nature and extent of the doctor’s exam or other information the doctor relied upon. Second, after learning about the restrictions, the District made no effort to dialogue with the Plaintiff about potential reasonable accommodations. If they had simply talked to the Plaintiff, they may have learned more about the limitations of the doctor’s opinion and perhaps could have developed a solution that would have allowed Plaintiff to do the job while also dealing with any of the medical concerns.
Takeaway: employers cannot farm out to medical professionals their obligation to make an individual assessment of an applicant’s ability to perform the essential functions of a job. While a physician’s opinion is often essential, in and of itself it does not answer the questions about qualifications or reasonable accommodation. Nor does it relieve the employer of its obligation to engage in the interactive process.