Court Rejects Employee ADA Claim Based on Sore Back and Neck after Moving Furniture in Office

Earlier this month, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed a federal court’s dismissal of an employee’s claims of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) discrimination and retaliation for his firing after hurting his back and neck on the job.  The court considered whether the plaintiff was “disabled” under the ADA, and ultimately determined that he failed to show that his alleged injuries rose to the level of a disability as a matter of law. The case is Reynolds v. American National Red Cross, No. 11-2280 (4th Cir. Oct. 4, 2012).

The plaintiff, Benjamin Reynolds (“Reynolds”) had worked for the Greenbrier Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross in Lewisburg, West Virginia (the “Chapter”).  He became a full-time employee on August 1, 2006, after having served as a volunteer and part-time employee for many years.  During his tenure, Reynolds worked directly for the Chapter’s Executive Director Walter Lockhart (“Lockhart”).  In his first week of full-time employment, Lockhart instructed Reynolds to help move a baby grand piano that had been donated to the Chapter.  According to Reynolds’s complaint, he immediately experienced severe neck and back pain when he started moving the piano.  Reynolds claimed that when he told Lockhart of his injury and asked to stop, Lockhart ignored his requests and commanded him to continue with the move.

A few days later, Reynolds went to his local emergency room, complaining of “persistent and severe pain in his neck and upper back.”  The physicians referred him to the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, Virginia (“UVA Health”), where he was examined by a specialist, Dr. Mistry.  Dr. Mistry found normal range of motion and strength in Reynolds’ neck, shoulders, elbows, and wrists.  Nevertheless, he scheduled Reynolds for an MRI and a follow-up appointment, and issued him a note to return to work restricting him to lifting 15 pounds or less.  Reynolds never returned to UVA Health for his follow-up appointment or MRI.

Reynolds claimed that after he returned to work and gave Dr. Mistry’s note to his employer, Lockhart continued to ask him to lift things in excess of 15 pounds.  Reynolds never refused to lift items while under Dr. Mistry’s weight restriction.  In late January 2007, the Chapter terminated Reynolds’ employment, claiming “budget restrictions,” and giving no other reasons.

Reynolds filed a disability discrimination charge against the Chapter with the EEOC, based on the neck and back injuries he allegedly suffered while moving the baby grand piano.  Reynolds claimed that he was “harassed, retaliated against, treated differently from others, denied a reasonable accommodation, and unlawfully discharged based on his disability.”  On December 30, 2009, the EEOC dismissed Reynolds’s charge.  Reynolds then filed a civil action in federal court against the American Red Cross, the Chapter, and Lockhart.  The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that Reynolds had not presented sufficient evidence to prove he was “disabled.”  Reynolds’s chief ADA claim was that he was fired because of his alleged disability.

To survive summary judgment on this claim, Reynolds needed to show that he was “a qualified individual with a disability.”  Under the ADA, a person is considered “disabled” if he: (1) suffers from a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities”; (2) he has a medical record of such an impairment; or (3) his employer regards him as having such an impairment.  Reynolds cited “lifting” as the major life activity that was substantially limited by his alleged injuries.  While lifting is a major life activity under federal regulations, Reynolds failed to show how he had been “substantially limited” in this regard.  Reynolds did not show that his alleged injuries prevented or severely restricted him from lifting, nor did he offer any evidence that his injuries were “permanent or long term.”  The only evidence Reynolds provided regarding his alleged limitation was a medical report from Dr. Mistry, the same doctor who testified that he did not believe Reynolds to be disabled.  Thus his main ADA claim failed.

Reynolds also claimed that his firing was in retaliation for requesting that the Chapter: (a) stop requiring him to lift items exceeding 15 pounds in weight, and (b) file a workers’ compensation claim for him.  To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) he engaged in protected conduct, (2) he suffered an adverse action, and (3) a causal link exists between the protected conduct and adverse action. The alleged “protected conduct” was his request that Lockhart honor the 15-pound lifting restriction imposed by Dr. Mistry, which he claimed that Lockhart did not honor.  Yet Reynolds failed to demonstrate a link between the protected activity and his termination, which doomed this retaliation claim.  Furthermore, because filing a workers’ compensation claim is not protected by the ADA, the court dismissed Reynolds’ retaliation claim based on his workers’ compensation requests.

While the ADA protects a wide range of medical conditions, this case shows that not every injury entitles an employee to special treatment – even if the injury is blamed on the employer.

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