Here’s a cautionary tale from the Sixth Circuit about disabilities discrimination: just because an employee is medically restricted in some aspect of their job does not automatically translate into a covered “disability” for purposes of the ADA. The court affirms summary judgment here, holding that the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”) – while it liberalized other parts of the statute – did not change the definition of “working” as a “major life activity.”
Booth v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., No. 18-5985 (6th Cir. June 7, 2019): Plaintiff Booth, at the time of his claims, was employed as an assembly-line worker. Due to a neck injury on the job, Booth was placed on permanent work restrictions, “including that (1) Booth work overhead or above his shoulders no more than 33% of the time; and (2) Booth flex or extend his neck no more than 66% of the time.”
When Booth attempted to transfer to another line (the “Material Handling Transfer”) – and later when he sought accommodations from his current role (the “Door Line Restructuring”) – Nissan turned down his requests. Booth sued under the ADA and the Tennessee Human Rights Act.
The panel affirms summary judgment. It holds first that the Material Handling Transfer was untimely because the plaintiff was aware a year before filing his charge that the transfer was denied.
“True, Booth requested to speak with other supervisors after learning that Nissan had denied his transfer, and Nissan granted that request. But Nissan’s decision was no less final, simply because Nissan supervisors explained the company’s decision to Booth several times in 2015 and 2016. Those discussions did not reset the 300-day deadline to file the charge.”
But importantly, even if the claim were timely, the panel concludes that the plaintiff failed to meet his burden of showing a genuine dispute of material fact that he had a “disablity” within the meaning of the statute. (This same deficiency also dashes the Door Line Restructuring claim.) It holds that the ability to perform a particular function at work is not equivalent of being substantially limited in the major life activity of working.
“Booth seems to assume that because he has work restrictions and because Nissan denied his transfer request because of those restrictions, he is disabled under the ADA …. [but we] have 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.”
Booth tried arguing that the ADAAA liberalized the definition of “disability,” but the panel rejoins that “[e]ven so, Congress did not modify the definition of the major life activity of working, and a plaintiff who alleges a work-related disability ‘is still required to show that her impairment limits her ability to ‘perform a class of jobs or broad range of jobs'” [citation omitted].
The panel holds that Booth specific limitations in two job titles is not enough to make the required showing of a substantial limitation:
“That Booth’s neck injury and related work restrictions kept him from working in the material handling role does not resolve whether Booth is disabled under the ADA. Rather than point to one job that he cannot perform, a plaintiff alleging a work-related disability must show that his condition precludes him from working in a class or broad range of jobs [italics in original, citation omitted] …. Booth concedes that he has worked without interruption on the assembly line since injuring his neck in 2004-and has continued to work there since this litigation began.”
The panel also rejects the alternative proposition that Nissan regarded Booth as disabled. “Booth has not shown that Nissan regarded him as disabled when it denied his transfer request (while employing him on the assembly line all along).”
Finally, while finding Booth’s reasonable-accommodation claim based on the Door Line Restructuring timely, the panel rejects it both because Booth was not “disabled” and also becasue Nissan did in fact furnish accommodations: “Nissan allowed Booth to remain in the two-job position after he alerted his supervisors that the two new tasks Nissan wanted him to perform conflicted with his work restrictions. And Booth remained in that role while he sought medical advice about his work restrictions.”