Labor & Employment Law Daily Failure to link disability to medical restriction doomed failure-to-accommodate claim
Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Failure to link disability to medical restriction doomed failure-to-accommodate claim

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

The employee failed to show a causal nexus between his hypothyroidism and the particular limitation for which he sought an accommodation—his inability to work in a certain room that had multiple video screens and flashing lights.

A juvenile detention center employee who was denied his request not to be assigned to the control room because it caused him to suffer motion sickness and was instead forced to take medical leave and eventually terminated, failed to convince the Seventh Circuit to revive his ADA failure-to-accommodate claim. Affirming summary judgment against him, but on alternative grounds, the appeals court ruled that the employee did not show a causal nexus between his hypothyroidism and his medical restrictions. Indeed, the doctor who restricted the employee from being assigned to the room due to medical concerns testified “unequivocally” that he knew of no connection between motion sickness and the employee’s diagnosis of acromegaly, hypothyroidism, and hypocalcemia (Youngman v. Peoria County, January 24, 2020, Rovner, I.).

Hypothyroidism and hypocalcemia. In 1998, the employee was hired as a youth counselor at the county juvenile detention center. A few years earlier, he was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor and acromegaly, and had surgery to remove the tumor and a portion of his pituitary gland. He then had a thyroidectomy in 2011, resulting in both hypothyroidism and hypocalcemia.

Assigned to control room. In 2012, the detention center implemented a new policy requiring that all counselors be trained and rotated through all three types of assignments, which included working in the control room. Up until that time, the employee had rarely worked in the control room. Now, he was being required to work in the room for at least one or two weeks annually.

Restricted due to “medical concerns.” The employee described the control room as being filled with electronic equipment that emitted various humming, beeping, or buzzing noises and required the operator to make rapid turning movements in order to monitor multiple video screens. While assigned to work in the room for the week of July 29, 2012, he began to experience headaches, nausea, and dizziness, among other symptoms. He took a sick day on July 31 and returned to work on August 1 with a doctor’s note stating that he could not work in the control room due to medical concerns.

The superintendent requested further information, advising him that his doctor’s note was too vague. The employee then worked the remainder of the week in the control room, taking two hours of sick leave on August 2. He was then placed on light duty, which entailed reassignment to the control room, where he worked from August 5 through 9.

Placed on FMLA leave. On August 5, he provided another doctor’s note indicating that he was experiencing motion sickness due to the lights, noise, cameras, and televisions in the control room and should not be assigned to work in that room. He also submitted a note of his own describing his symptoms and asking not to be assigned to the control room. He was then ordered to undergo a fitness-for-duty exam with the county’s physician, who restricted him from viewing multiple screens and recommended avoiding rapid alternating movements and flashing lights. Though he asked not to be assigned to the control room, he was told that was not possible and placed on medical leave until his condition improved. After his FMLA leave expired, his position was filled, and he found employment elsewhere.

ADA claim tossed. The employee’s ADA lawsuit alleged that he was denied a reasonable accommodation and forced out of his position. The district court dismissed it on summary judgment, reasoning that he was responsible for the breakdown of the interactive process required by the ADA. In particular, the court found that he failed to provide the necessary clarifications concerning his medical restrictions and ultimately abandoned the interactive process altogether when he ceased providing status reports on his condition and refused to respond to his employer’s inquiries and requests to meet while on leave.

Summary judgment affirmed for more “basic” reason. The Seventh Circuit agreed that summary judgment was warranted, but that the employee’s claim failed “on a more basic point.” To succeed on a failure-to-accommodate claim, there must be some “causal connection between the major life activity that is limited and the accommodation sought.” The employee failed to make that basic showing.

Hypothyroidism treated as disability. The employee had a portion of his pituitary gland and the entirety of his thyroid gland removed. And as a result of his thyroidectomy, he suffered from both hypothyroidism and hypocalcemia, which in turn required him to take medication and dietary supplements. The district court, noting that diseases like diabetes that affect the functioning of the body’s endocrine system qualify as disabilities, concluded that the employee’s hypothyroidism should be treated the same way. For purposes of this appeal, the Seventh Circuit assumed that it was correct.

But failed to link to motion sickness. However, the employee’s fatal problem was his failure to show a causal nexus between his hypothyroidism and the limitation for which he sought an accommodation. While he assumed that the motion sickness he suffered when assigned to the control room was the result of his hypothyroidism, he presented no medical evidence to support that necessary causal link. Indeed, his doctor “unequivocally” testified at his deposition that he knew of no connection between motion sickness and acromegaly, hypothyroidism, hypocalcemia, or the medications and supplements the employee was taking for those conditions.

Thus, without proof that his motion sickness was caused by a condition that qualified as a disability under the ADA, the employee could not show that his employer discriminated against him on the basis of that disability.

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