By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.
Ford Motor Company did not violate the ADA or state law when it temporarily bypassed an employee for an apprenticeship because of his opioid use stemming from a work-related neck injury, ruled the Sixth Circuit. Observing that the district court appeared to have analyzed the case under the direct method alone, the appeals court nevertheless affirmed the grant of summary judgment against his disability discrimination claims. His claim failed under the direct method as the evidence did not show Ford regarded his opioid use as a substantial impairment on the major life activity of working. Under the indirect method, he failed to create a fact dispute as to whether Ford’s doctor honestly believed he was using opioids or that opioid use could affect his performance (Ferrari v. Ford Motor Co.
, June 23, 2016, Stranch, J.).
Need for meds.
Upon returning from medical leave with work restrictions after injuring his neck, Ford placed the employee in various light-duty positons for nine years. When his pain management doctor agreed to remove the restrictions, which until that point has been classified as permanent, Ford’s company doctor disagreed, noting that his pain doctor’s most recent notes indicated the employee had a need for narcotic medications.
In the meantime, the employee applied for an apprenticeship and was scheduled for a pre-apprenticeship physical. After conducting the physical, Ford’s doctor noted that the employee’s records indicated he was still using opioids, although he claimed he had weaned off them. She then sent his doctor a job description for the apprenticeship position and asked if the employee could safely execute the required tasks while taking opioids. She also scheduled an independent medical exam.
The IME doctor found the employee’s claim that he had been off opioids for three months was not substantiated by his medical records. He concluded that if the employee was on opioids, he could not resume unrestricted employment because their use could affect his performance. Because Ford’s doctor, as a result, refused to remove restrictions for climbing ladders and overhead work, Ford temporarily bypassed the employee for the apprenticeship. He then sued, asserting claims under the ADA and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, and the district court granted summary judgment against them.
The employee’s disability discrimination claims failed under the direct method, said the appeals court, observing that he appeared to argue that Ford mistakenly believed his opioid use substantially limited him in the major life activity of working. Noting that inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working, the court pointed out that while Ford concluded his opioid use restricted him from working jobs that required ladder climbing or working at heights, it cleared him to work in any job that did not require those activities, and in fact placed him in both clerical and assembly positions. Thus, the evidence did not show that Ford regarded his opioid use as a substantial impairment on the major life activity of working.
Turning to the indirect method, the court first clarified that the five-element test previously articulated in Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp.
remains the proper test for establishing a prima facie case. Because the district court used the incorrect formulation of a prima facie case, the appeals court assumed a prima facie case under the correct test. It then found the employee failed to raise a fact issue as to pretext.
Ford’s doctor’s stated reason for imposing restrictions on the employee was his opioid use, and Ford temporarily bypassed him for the apprenticeship because of those restrictions, the court observed, finding that the restrictions—and the medical condition underlying them—were a legitimate, nondiscriminatory explanation for Ford’s adverse employment decision.
Pointing out that it employs the "honest belief" rule with regard to pretext, the court found that the employee failed to create a fact dispute as to whether the apprenticeship decision-makers honestly believed his restrictions reflected a reasonable medical judgment. While the doctor imposed the restrictions, she was not the final decisionmaker with regard to the apprenticeship.
Moreover, the employee failed to create a fact dispute as to whether the doctor honestly believed he was using opioids or honestly believed the opioids could affect his performance, creating a danger to him and other employees. She conducted two examinations of the employee, reviewed his medical history, obtained his most up-to-date medical records, and ordered new tests and an IME to resolve discrepancies in his medical record before revising his medical restrictions based on this new information.
And while the employee argued that he had ceased using opioids when the doctor imposed the restrictions, his medical records indicated that he was addicted to opioids and was still actively using them. Further, the IME report concluded that the medical record did not substantiate his claim to have weaned off opioids and that opioid use could affect his performance. Accordingly, he failed to present sufficient evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment.