Lack of Proof that Employer Knew About Employee’s Disability Dooms ADA Case

An Ohio man, who had a disability that affected his ability to stoop, bend, and twist, could not pursue an Americans With Disabilities Act case against the employer that terminated him. The law required the employee to show that the party that decided to terminate him knew about the disability. In this case, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers not only Ohio but also Tennessee, decided that the employee lacked this necessary evidence establishing knowledge, and so his case was properly decided by the trial court in favor of the employer.

The employee, Michael Arthur, was a man who was born with spina bifida occulta, which is a birth defect that causes a malformed spinal cord. In 2002, three years after Arthur began working for American Showa, Inc., the man underwent surgery to fuse some of his spinal discs. Even after the surgery, the employee continued to have problems and took FMLA leave in 2003 due to his back.

Another year later, the employee asked for an accommodation of his disability. Arthur requested that American reassign him to a new job that did not involve bending or twisting. The employer made Arthur undergo an independent medical examination. The doctor recommended that the employer assign Arthur to a job with minimal bending, stooping, or twisting and no lifting objects heavier than 20 pounds. American placed Arthur in such a position, where he remained until 2011.

That year, due to economic difficulties, American began a new round of reductions to its workforce. Using a set of objective criteria, Arthur’s manager chose him to be laid off. American offered Arthur a different job in its machining area, but he refused. Six months after his termination, Arthur sued American for violating the ADA by discriminating against him based upon his disability. The employer asked the trial court to issue a summary judgment in its favor, and the court did so.

The employee appealed but was not successful. The appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling because Arthur, in the court’s view, had a proof problem. Arthur had ample evidence that he was disabled. He sufficiently established that he had spina bifida occulta and that it had done significant enough damage to his back to render him limited in several life activities on a “chronic and permanent” basis. What doomed his case, though, was the requirement of showing that American knew about his disability. Simply put, in order to maintain a case claiming that he was fired due to a disability, an employee must show that the individual person who made the termination decision knew about that disability.

This is where Arthur’s case fell apart. The specific person responsible for his termination was his direct manager, Greg Harvey. The evidence in Arthur’s case was undisputed that Harvey knew nothing about Arthur’s disability when he made the decision to include Arthur in the layoffs. Harvey knew that Arthur had work restrictions, but he did not know that Arthur was disabled.

The employee’s argument that American also violated the law through its failure to accommodate his disability also fell short. The law is clear that the employer is not required to displace other employees or create a position to accommodate an employee with a disability. In Arthur’s case, the employer had no vacant positions that fit within Arthur’s list of restrictions. As a result, the employer did not improperly fail to accommodate.

Whether you are an employee or an employer, it is very important to understand exactly what the law demands when it comes to dealing with employees with disabilities, especially firing or laying off employees with disabilities. The knowledgeable Tennessee employment discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have extensive experience assisting both employers and employees in dealing with the ADA and other aspects of discrimination law.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Eleventh Circuit Rejects Employee’s Disability Discrimination Case Due to Proposed Accommodation’s Lack of Reasonableness, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Oct. 6, 2015

Eleventh Circuit Decides Employer Lacked Knowledge of Employee’s Disability, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Aug. 5, 2015

Contact Information