Friday, January 4, 2008

6th Circuit limits scope of "regarded as" disability claims

The Americans with Disabilities Act not only protects employees who have actual disabilities, but also those who have a record of a disability and those who an employer regards as disabled. Gruener v. The Ohio Casualty Ins. Co., decided yesterday by a unanimous panel of the 6th Circuit, defines the scope of regarded-as-disabled claims.

Sharyn Gruener, an IT technician for Ohio Casualty, suffered from a long history of degenerative joint disease in her knee, which ultimately resulted in a double knee replacement. After the surgery, she returned to work with restrictions on her ability to squat, crawl, kneel, lift more than 20 pounds, or carry more than 10 pounds. When her supervisor learned that had been asking her co-workers to help her perform certain tasks she could not do, such as plugging in computers and lifting heavy monitors, the company terminated her, concluding that she could not perform the essential functions of her position without asking co-workers to live, move, or plug-in computer equipment for her.

Following her termination. Gruener sued Ohio Casualty under two different theories of disability discrimination -- actual disability and regarded-as-disabled disability. The jury found against her on the former, and the trial court refused to instruct the jury on the latter.

The appellate court found that that the trial court did not err in refusing to give a jury instruction on the regarded-as-disabled theory. The ADA's regarded-as-disabled provision protects employees who are perfectly able to perform a job, but are rejected or terminated because of "myths, fears, and stereotypes" that go along with disabilities. The theory requires that the employer "entertain misconceptions about the employee," either by mistakenly believing that the employee has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or mistakenly believing that an actual non-limiting impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities.

In this case, there was no dispute that Gruener could not perform the essential functions her job without the help of co-workers. Moreover, the only understanding Ohio Casualty has about her impairments, their limits, and her ability to perform her job came directly from her own doctor's valid, permanent work restrictions. Following the specific recommendations of a treating physician does not wrongfully view an employee through a stereotype of disability.

While this case does not set earth shattering precedent in regarded-as-disabled cases, it does provide some added comfort for employers who rely upon an employee's treating doctor's work restrictions in making personnel decisions. It also further illustrates an issue that I wrote about earlier this week - discrimination cases are largely about harbored stereotypes and the impact they have on one's perception of another to perform a job.