The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently provided a useful review of the evolving law analyzing the existence of an employee’s “disability,” and the relationship of that disability to the workplace and potential workplace accommodations.
In Squibb v. Memorial Medical Center, the plaintiff was a registered nurse who had suffered a series of back injuries. As a result of a functional capacity examination (“FCE”), it was determined that her lifting should be restricted, on a continuous basis, to about 15 pounds. Although she had been employed temporarily in a light duty position prior to the FCE, when the restrictions were made permanent, she was informed that she needed to seek a permanent position. After applying for several positions at the Medical Center which she felt she could perform, she was offered a position as clinical case manager but declined it because she believed the job requirements were outside her physical restrictions. She was then terminated for a failure to return from leave.
The court noted that whether a particular impairment substantially limits a major life activity is a case specific inquiry. In this particular case, plaintiff claimed to be limited in her ability to work, sleep, care for herself, walk, sit and engage in sexual intercourse. She identified each of those as a major life activity.
With respect to “working,” the court examined the jobs that plaintiff claimed she could perform and those she claimed she could not perform, and concluded that since plaintiff had not proven that she was prevented from performing a broad “class of jobs,” her claim must fail. The court pointed out that being disqualified from performing her own job, by itself, was not sufficient to establish an existence of a disability.
Although plaintiff testified that she was only able to sleep three to four hours per night, the court stated that it had considered, in the past, the extent to which a claim of lack of sleep contributed to a decreased functional level and then determined whether it rose to the level of a disability. Since plaintiff had not presented evidence of such decreased functioning, it was found that she had not demonstrated that the loss of sleep rose to the level of a disability.
With respect to “caring for herself,” the court concluded that the stated restrictions of zipping or buttoning her clothes in the back, brushing the back of her hair and some limitations of cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping did not rise to the level of a disability. Because the plaintiff admitted she could perform certain of those tasks on occasion, and admitted that she could perform a number of other tasks such as driving, bathing, brushing her teeth and dressing herself, the court concluded that she was not prevented from performing such functions or even severely restricted.
The court then noted that plaintiff’s own evidence did not support her conclusion that she was limited in sitting and walking, since she only claimed that she needed a break every 30 minutes.
Finally, the court viewed plaintiff’s claim that she was disabled because she was limited in the major life activity of sexual relations. It assumed, for the purpose of the argument, that sexual intercourse was a major life activity, although it noted that it had not conclusively determined that issue. It concluded that there must be some causal connection between the major life activity that is limited and the accommodation sought by the employee. It then held that it was unclear how a plaintiff’s employer could accommodate such a disability. Accordingly, it rejected that portion of plaintiff’s claim and concluded that all of the plaintiff’s claims of the existence of a disability should be dismissed.
The court’s willingness to examine the practical aspects of claims of limitations of various major life functions illustrates the need for careful and pragmatic inquiry when an employer is faced with disability claims and resulting demands for accommodations. Unfortunately, the law is evolving in a patchwork fashion. For example, while certain appellate courts may hold that a lifting restriction of 10 pounds is not sufficient to establish the existence of a disability, other courts have concluded that a restriction of 25 pounds may establish a disability.
Employers faced with claims of disability flowing from such limitations should make careful inquiry about the nature of the limitations and also about their impact upon the employee’s functioning in an everyday context. Finally, the issue of the causal connection between certain claimed disabilities and the accommodation the employee requests at work is a valid point of analysis.