Employment Law Daily Jury didn’t need medical evidence to assess knee injury, but worker didn’t show how injury limited him
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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Jury didn’t need medical evidence to assess knee injury, but worker didn’t show how injury limited him

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Affirming summary judgment against a former police sergeant’s ADA disability discrimination claims, the First Circuit concluded that whether medical evidence is required depends on the case, and here, a jury didn’t need a medical expert to assess whether the sergeant’s knee injury was a physical impairment or whether it substantially limited a major life activity. That said, the employee’s claims failed because he provided only conclusory assertions that his injury substantially limited his ability to stand, walk, and bend without any details on how it limited him. That was simply not enough to avoid summary judgment on his “actual disability” and “record of disability” claims (Mancini v. City of Providence, November 21, 2018, Selya, B.).

Disability benefits denied. On November 15, 2010, the employee, a police sergeant, sustained a knee injury while pursuing a suspect. He received medical treatment, including surgery, and was placed on injured on duty (IOD) status, out until May 2011, at which point he went on light duty. That lasted until August 2011, when he was removed from light duty. On September 2, at his supervisor’s behest, he filed for accidental disability benefits, which, if granted, would effectively be early retirement. This was denied on June 27, 2012, based on three independent medical examinations. Thereafter, the city refused to let him return to work on light duty.

Promotion denied. Meanwhile, a few weeks before his application was denied, he sat for the 2012 lieutenants’ promotional exam. Promotion decisions were based on the exam, seniority, education, and service points awarded by the chief. The employee, who did not receive any service points, missed out on being promoted to one of the five open positions by only one point.

Litigation. The employee pursued administrative remedies and later filed suit under the ADA and state law, alleging the failure to promote him constituted disability discrimination. Granting summary judgment for the city, the district court concluded that he failed to establish he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, and this dispensed with his state-law claims as well.

Medical evidence not needed to assess knee injury. On appeal, the First Circuit explained that the lack of medical evidence of a physical impairment does not necessarily doom an ADA claim because the need for such evidence depends on the circumstances. For example, an impairment may be obvious to a lay jury, or a plaintiff might offer a description of treatments and symptoms allowing a jury to find in his favor without medical evidence.

Here, the district court focused on the doctor’s diagnosis that the employee had “chondromalacia of the right knee,” and concluded that, absent medical evidence, a lay jury could not assess whether he had a physical impairment. In the appellate court’s view, though, the focus on the diagnosis was “a red herring.”

First, the appeals court noted that the employee’s injuries appeared to qualify as a physiological condition affecting one or more body systems (he required surgery and was placed on special employment status). It also concluded that despite the focus on the term “chondromalacia,” the record made clear the alleged impairment was a “knee injury,” and to the appeals court, that “fell within the universe of impairments that a lay jury can fathom without expert guidance.” Thus, medical evidence was not needed to establish whether the injury was an ADA impairment.

Didn’t show substantial limitation. That did not end the analysis though; the employee still had to show the impairment substantially limited a major life activity. And while a lay jury did not need medical experts to assess whether a knee injury substantially limited such ordinary activities as standing, walking, and bending, the employee had to do more than merely allege in a conclusory fashion, as he did here, that his knee injury substantially limited those activities. He provided no details as to how or in what ways the limitation manifested itself, and that was not enough to avoid summary judgment. While he tried to cure this deficiency by arguing that his IOD status and application for disability benefits showed a substantial limitation, the appeals court disagreed. It noted that he worked light duty while on IOD status and the application for disability said nothing about limitations on major life activities. Consequently his “actual disability” and “record of disability” claims failed.

No “regarded as” claim. Though the requirements for “regarded as” ADA claims are less demanding, the employee failed to raise such a claim below, and that foreclosed his claim on appeal. The appeals court noted that, in wrapping up a section on “record of disability,” he included two sentences to the effect that his record of disability demonstrated the city’s belief that he was disabled. This oblique reference was not enough to raise the claim below.

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