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Did employer fail to accommodate Zamboni driver’s disability from work injury?

An ice-skating rink says it fired its maintenance manager after he drove the Zamboni into the rink wall, causing damage. The employee says the rink failed to accommodate his disability due to a workplace injury and fired him for it. How did a court rule? 

James Graham Jr. worked for Arctic Zone Iceplex in Indiana as head mechanic and maintenance supervisor. Part of his duties included operating the rink’s Zamboni that smooths the surface on the ice.

According to court documents, “Graham’s tenure at Arctic Zone was not without issues.” Among the problems: customer complaints about his attitude (which Arctic Zone also noticed) and difficulty completing tasks on time. Arctic Zone never wrote up Graham.

In February 2015, Graham was injured on the job. He didn’t work from February to May 2015 and received workers’ compensation.

Graham returned to work in May 2015 with medical restrictions, including that he work sitting. In an attempt to accommodate him, Arctic Zone assigned Graham to skate sharpening which the company thought could be done sitting down. Graham disagreed that it was a sitting job, but he never spoke up about it.

Back on the ice

In August 2015, Graham went back to full-time work. Arctic Zone assigned him to evenings which it attributed to seasonal need. Graham said this was a demotion.

Two months later, Graham caused the Zamboni to drive into the rink wall, resulting in over two feet of jagged plastic protruding into the rink. Arctic Zone says it was a hazard to its customers.

The rink immediately fired Graham, listing five reasons on his Termination Notice:

  • poor attitude about his change in position
  • poor attitude toward customers (citing customer complaints)
  • lack of timeliness in completing his duties
  • insubordination with management, and
  • the Zamboni incident, which put customers in danger and caused Arctic Zone to lose revenue while the rink was being repaired.

Graham sued Arctic Zone for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He alleged the company failed to reasonably accommodate his disability and it fired him because of his disability.

A trial court granted summary judgment to Arctic Zone on both counts. Graham appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court.

Court: ‘This is a textbook example’

Graham said Arctic Zone failed to make a reasonable accommodation for him when they assigned him to skate sharpening because the task couldn’t be done sitting down as required by his medical restriction.

But the Seventh Circuit noted the interactive process of identifying reasonable accommodations takes two: the employer and employee.

Graham admitted he didn’t let Arctic Zone know about his belief that skate sharpening didn’t fit with his medical restrictions.

“This is a textbook example of an employee ‘not providing sufficient information to the employer to determine the necessary accommodations,'” the court wrote, noting a previously decided case.

The Seventh Circuit said Graham “failed to uphold his end of the interactive process.”

The court also ruled that Graham failed to prove the reasons Arctic Zone gave for firing him were a pretext, when he was actually let go because of his disability.

Graham argued his attitude, insubordination and failure to complete tasks on time couldn’t be the real reasons he was let go because he was never written up for them.

“His premise seems to be that by not addressing the issues earlier, Arctic Zone somehow forfeited its right to count these problems as black marks on his record,” the court decision wrote. “Not so.”

Graham also claimed Arctic Zone treated him differently than another employee who had caused a similar incident with the Zamboni. The other employee wasn’t fired. But the employer said the other employee had a “sterling” record. The court said the other employee’s Zamboni incident was his “first strike,” where Graham had other performance problems.

The Seventh Circuit concluded Graham failed to prove Arctic Zone discriminated against him by failing to reasonably accommodate him or by firing him.

(James Graham Jr. v. Arctic Zone Iceplex LLCU.S. Circuit Crt. 7, No. 18-3508, 7/23/19)

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