Sixth Circuit Reversed District Court’s Grant of Summary Judgment in Disability Discrimination Case

On December 13, 2013, the United States Court Of Appeals For The Sixth Circuit reversed a summary judgment granted to an employer in the Henschel v. Clare Co. Rd. Comm. case. The lower court determined that the case presented no genuine issue of facts and that the employer was right when he terminated his disabled employee, the Plaintiff, who was no longer qualified to perform the essential functions of his excavator operator position after his left leg was amputated.

In this case, the Plaintiff was working as an excavator operator for Clare County Road Commission (CCRC) when he lost his left leg above the knee in a motorcycle accident. As an excavator, Plaintiff was in charge of running an excavator, which is “a piece of heavy equipment used for digging ditches and trenches that was delivered to work sites on a trailer pulled by a manual transmission semi-truck”. Following this motorcycle accident and after Plaintiff recovered he asked to return to work. However, Plaintiff was not allowed to return to his old position. Thereafter, Plaintiff asserted a disability discrimination claim in violation of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) against his former employer and instead CCRC assigned him to a year-round blade truck driver position in an automatic- transmission blade truck. However, this position was already occupied by another employee who would not give up his truck. Ultimately, Plaintiff was terminated and the district court granted CCRC’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of his job.

The Appellate Court, however, found that there were genuine issues of material fact and remanded the case to the district court to determine them. In doing so, the Appellate Court reviewed the standards used to determine what were the essential functions of Plaintiff’s employment. The regulations accompanying the ADA provide seven non-exclusive factors for determining whether a particular function is essential: (i) The employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential; (ii) Written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job; (iii) The amount of time spent on the job performing the function; (iv) The consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function; (v) The terms of a collective bargaining agreement; (vi) The experience of past incumbents in the job; and/or (vii) The current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs. Taking into account those elements, the Appellate Court decided that there were genuine issues of material facts regarding whether Plaintiff was qualified to hold his position as an excavator operator. The Appellate Court also affirmed that the district court’s determination that reassigning Plaintiff to another year-long position, which as already occupied, was not a reasonable accommodation; and “remanded to the district court to determine if genuine issues of material fact exist regarding whether Plaintiff was qualified, with or without accommodations, to perform the various functions throughout the year of the excavator operator position.”

If you believe you are disabled under the New York State Human Rights Law, the New York City Human Rights Law and/or the American with Disabilities Act and are being discriminated against by your employer, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.