Román-Oliveras v. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, No. 09-1503 (1st Cir. Aug. 18, 2011); Jones v. Nissan North America, Inc., No. 09-5786 (6th Cir. Aug. 19, 2011) (non-precedential)

| Aug 19, 2011 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

Today we log two wins for ADA “regarded as” disability discrimination claimants. In the First Circuit, the panel holds that a district court too hastily dismissed a complaint of disability discrimination, alleging that the employer refused to assign a mentally-ill employee anywhere in the workplace. In the Sixth Circuit, the panel (in an unpublished opinion) astoundingly overturns a jury verdict for the employer – and orders entry of judgment for the employee – where the company placed the plaintiff on involuntary medical leave based solely on an unclear state-court order and without an independent examination of the employee.

Román-Oliveras v. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, No. 09-1503 (1st Cir. Aug. 18, 2011):  The district court dismissed the employee’s case on the face of the complaint, finding that he alleged insufficient facts to establish that he suffered discrimination because of his disability.

Plaintiff served as a Central Power Plant Electrician II. “Before the events at issue in this litigation, Román had worked successfully for PREPA for twenty-two years while receiving regular psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia. The condition had been diagnosed more than thirty years earlier. Román received excellent evaluations and was always available for overtime work.”

In March 2006 the company’s social worker recommended that the plaintiff be removed from the workplace altogether due to his mental condition. He was never allowed to return despite that he was subjected to multiple medical examinations, that the employer’s own physician and There doctors cleared him for return to work, and that the plaintiff repeatedly asked to return. In 2007, he was removed from the payroll and the supervisors “ordered removal of Román’s personal items from the work area, removal of his name from his locker, and reassignment of his toolbox to another employee.”

The panel holds that the employee stated a claim for ADA discrimination under the “regarded as” provision (and a parallel claim under Puerto Rican law):

“Taken as true, these allegations, together with the allegation that Román always performed his job well, readily support three pertinent inferences: (1) defendants mistakenly believed that Román’s psychiatric condition substantially limited his ability to do his job; (2) they refused to let him work based on that erroneous, discriminatory judgment; and (3) they repeatedly attempted to justify removing him from his job through the psychiatric and There medical testing. . . .”

The panel also holds that the employee alleged sufficient facts to establish that the employer regarded the employee as substantially limited in the major life activity of working:

“Although the complaint does not explicitly assert that PREPA had such a broad perception of Román’s incapacity, the allegations are sufficient to embrace that contention. According to the complaint, PREPA removed Román from his position without any meaningful effort to offer him alternative positions appropriate for whatever limitations his employer attributed to him. . . . [Given that the disability at issue is a mental condition rather than a discrete physical limitation, defendants’ actions in removing Román and repeatedly demanding psychiatric evaluations permit the inference that defendants deemed him disqualified from a broad range of jobs.”

Finally, the panel affirms dismissal of a separate count under section 1983 for violation of due process rights, and dismissal of individual defendants under the ADA count (holding, in line with most There circuits, that There is no individual supervisor liability under the ADA).

Jones v. Nissan North America, Inc., No. 09-5786 (6th Cir. Aug. 19, 2011) (non-precedential): The employee brought claims under the ADA and Tennessee law. He worked as an auto assembly production technician at Nissan’s manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. In 2003, the plaintiff injured his elbow, but he was returned to work without restrictions by 2005. The employer admitted at trial that Jones continued to perform well “and that There was nothing that caused [his supervisor] to believe that Jones could not physically perform the job.”

In 2006, “Jones’s workers’ compensation claim against Nissan for his right-elbow injury was tried in the Chancery Court for Wilson County, Tennessee.” The state court entered a judgment for the employee and awarded benefits. Thereafter, despite that his condition had not changed, the employer – based solely on testimony at the trial and the award – imposed work restrictions on Jones and removed him from the assembly line. Wrote the safety manager, “It is my opinion that his restrictions should be no lifting, no use of power tools, and. We should move on this ASAP and determine if he is working no use of hand tools within those restrictions. I am truly concerned that if his job requires him to perform these tasks he may be in harm[‘]s way.”

By mid-2006, Jones was placed on involuntary medical leave. “Nissan told Jones that it had placed him on leave because he had permanent restrictions and it was unable to find a job for him within those restrictions.”

Jones sued Nissan under the ADA and, after a three-day trial in 2009, the jury entered a judgment for the employer. The district court denied judgment as a matter of law to the employee, holding that “based upon the evidence presented, a jury could (and presumably did) conclude that Nissan was acting in accordance with its interpretation that the Chancery Court Order placed certain restrictions on Jones and precluded him from working on the assembly line, as well as in certain There jobs at Nissan.”

In a thorough 33-page opinion, the Sixth Circuit panel scours the trial record and holds – as a matter of law – that Jones was terminated in violation of the ADA, because Nissan regarded him as being disabled. Key to this decision was the history that Jones worked without restriction or physical difficulty from 2005 until being placed on leave, and that Nissan undertook no independent evaluation of the employee’s fitness for assembly line work but simply relied on the state-court order.

Holds the panel, “it is clear beyond peradventure that the chancellor’s order did not direct Nissan to restrict Jones from continuing in the trim-fit position he was performing at the time of the workers’ compensation trial. The order only directs Nissan to pay certain benefits.”

Moreover, “[t]he law is clear that an employer cannot simply rely on a third-party’s assessment that an employee is disabled. . . . [A]n employer is required to conduct an ‘individualized inquiry’ into the plaintiff’s actual medical condition. The record reflects a complete lack of evidence that Nissan took any steps to ascertain Jones’s actual medical condition. In fact, Nissan acknowledged that it conducted no such inquiry because it determined that it did not matter whether Jones was medically disabled.”

Accordingly, the panel orders entry of judgment for the plaintiff, and remands the case for determination of a remedy. The entire opinion makes a very worthy read, and hat’s off to the legal team and plaintiff who shepherded this case to a successful conclusion.

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