Safety and OSHA News

Disability discrimination or he couldn’t safely do job? Court decides

An employee says he was discriminated against because of a disability. His employer says an analysis showed he couldn’t do the job safely. How did a court rule? 

Charles McLane worked as a groundskeeper for the School City of Mishawaka in Indiana. Based on the results of a job site analysis, McLane was transferred to be a hall monitor. McLane failed to report for the hall monitor position and was fired. He sued School City, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here’s the background in this case:

McLane worked mostly as a groundskeeper for a school athletic facility which includes ball fields, tennis courts and nearby buildings including restrooms and a press box. His tasks included maintaining the fields, preparing for ball games and other facility maintenance.

The district’s job description said groundskeepers had to be able to “bend, stoop, climb a ladder, stand for extended time periods and lift up to 100 pounds.”

His supervisor noticed McLane was struggling to perform his duties, including trouble bending over and picking up items. The supervisor said it appeared McLane was in pain when trying to perform his regular tasks.

The supervisor discussed this with McLane and with the district’s HR manager. As a result, McLane was requested to take a fit-for-duty exam, something the district had asked other maintenance employees to do.

McLane was found fit for duty, but the doctor who performed the exam requested that a job site functional capacity evaluation also be performed. The purpose of the job site analysis (JSA) was to see if McLane could do the essential functions of his job.

A licensed physical therapist performed the JSA and found McLane was unsteady, had difficulty walking, was unable to bend properly and wasn’t able to crawl due to problems with his knees. McLane also wasn’t able to use proper body mechanics (bend his knees) while lifting.

The physical therapist found performing his regular job functions would put McLane at a risk for injury. The therapist also found that McLane’s physical deficits wouldn’t improve with instruction. Using a golf cart or tractor also wouldn’t help McLane, the therapist found. In fact, McLane already used a cart and tractor on the job and had trouble getting in and out of them.

After the district reviewed the JSA results, the decision was made to transfer McLane to a hall monitor position. He failed to report for the job and as a result was fired.

McLane sued the district under the ADA. The district asked for summary judgment – that the case be thrown out without a trial. A federal court recently issued its opinion.

His safety mattered

The district argued McLane wasn’t qualified to perform the essential functions of his job. Also, McLane couldn’t perform the duties with accommodations, such as using a golf cart or tractor.

More specifically, the employer said he wasn’t able to perform tasks safely. The district believed McLane posed a threat to himself. Under the ADA, an employee isn’t qualified if he poses a direct threat to himself or others.

The physical therapist said McLane was at a significant risk of back injury including the possibility of a ruptured disk if he continued with the groundskeeper tasks.

McLane made other arguments, including that the district created the groundskeeper job description in order to fire him, but the court rejected those claims, too.

The court agreed with the district that McLane wasn’t qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, therefore he couldn’t succeed on his ADA claim.

This employer did several things right on the path toward getting this ADA claim dismissed:

  • It had job descriptions that included both tasks (maintain ball fields) and physical requirements (bend, stoop, climb, etc.).
  • The supervisor raised his concerns both with the employee and the HR manager.
  • Professionals (a doctor and a physical therapist) were used to assess the employee’s abilities, and
  • The fit-for-duty test had been used previously by the employer for employees in similar positions.

(Charles McLane v. School City of Mishawaka, U.S. Dist. Crt. N.D. Indiana, No. 3:15CV119, 2/1/17)

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