The Sixth Circuit decision in Booth v. Nissan North America, Inc. may have serious implications for employers regarding compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Although the significant language is contained in a footnote of the decision, the Sixth Circuit advises that pressuring an employee to modify work restrictions could bring that employee under the ADA’s “regarded as disabled” provision, giving the employee protection against disability discrimination.
The decision arises out of two ADA claims, a disability discrimination claim and a failure-to-accommodate claim. At a Nissan factory in Tennessee, an employee was denied transfer because the position’s duties conflicted with his physician-provided work restrictions. Later, Nissan restructured the assembly line the employee worked on, adding additional duties that violated the employee’s work restrictions. But, Nissan allowed the restricted employee to continue his original duties without change. The employee subsequently brought suit under the ADA for disability discrimination and failure-to-accommodate.
The district court ultimately granted Nissan’s motion for summary judgment on both claims, which were then affirmed by the Sixth Circuit.
The significant implications of the decision lie in the Court’s discussion of the Nissan employee’s failure-to-accommodate claim. Notably, a Nissan supervisor had told the restricted employee that if he did not have his work restrictions changed, Nissan was “not going to have a job for him.” After this conversation, the employee indeed had his work restrictions reduced, allowing him to perform the new, additional tasks on the assembly line without conflict. The Sixth Circuit speculates in a footnote of the decision that had the employee argued that this conversation implied that Nissan regarded him as disabled, his failure-to-accommodate claim would have been more persuasive because he felt pressured to reduce his work restrictions. Additionally, the Nissan employee did not argue that he misrepresented symptoms to his physician in order to have his restrictions modified. Overall, the employee failed to establish that he was disabled under the ADA and that Nissan failed to accommodate that disability.
Employers should be cautious when altering position duties where employees with work restrictions will be affected. Further, employers should avoid pressuring employees to reevaluate work restrictions. In order to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers should have processes in place to determine proper accommodations for restricted employees.
*Bob Hoffer is Managing Partner of DBL Law, a mid-size law firm with offices in Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Louisville. His employment law practice covers all issues impacting employers on a daily basis, including complying with state and federal employment laws and litigating employment cases in federal and state courts. Bob also represents hospitals and physicians on employment and medical negligence issues.
*DBL Law Summer Associate Brianna Vollman contributed to this article.