Employment Law Daily No showing Ford regarded applicant with one hand as disabled when it rejected him for assembly line job
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Thursday, July 25, 2019

No showing Ford regarded applicant with one hand as disabled when it rejected him for assembly line job

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Affirming summary judgment against the applicant’s MHRA claim, the federal appeals court found the lower court did not err in applying a broad-range-of-jobs standard to his regarded-as claim.

A job applicant who was born without a left forearm and hand failed to show that Ford Motor Company regarded him as disabled when it refused to hire him for an entry-level assembler position, the Eighth Circuit ruled, affirming the grant of summary judgment against his Missouri Human Rights Act claim. And because he failed to provide meaningful argument or Missouri precedent in support of his retaliation claim, the court refused to consider it on appeal (Heuton v. Ford Motor Co., July 23, 2019, Shepherd, B.).

When the applicant applied for the assembler position at a Ford plant that produces vehicles on a moving assembly line, he disclosed he was born with only one hand (his left arm extended approximately three to four inches below his elbow and he was able to use his arm to perform some of the functions of his missing hand). He claimed a nurse at the company’s medical department told him to submit a doctor’s note stating he was unable to grip anything with his left hand, and that if he provided a note, Ford would give him a chance.

Doctors’ notes. Instead, he produced two notes: one stating he was “cleared to work” and he was “unable to grip” with his left hand, and the other stating that he had a congenital defect of his left upper extremity; his only limitation was an inability to grip with his left upper extremity; and he “has an impressive ability to adapt and performs many tasks, jobs etc without difficulty.” Nonetheless, Ford declined to hire him, noting on his medical examination form that “[m]ost jobs @ KCAP require the use of both hands/arms” and the plant was “unable to accommodate a one-hand restriction @ this time.”

Lower court proceedings. The applicant sued for disability discrimination under the MHRA and after determining that the 2008 amendments to the ADA did not affect the relevant state-law standards, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Ford.

Disabled? As a threshold matter, the Eighth Circuit observed, it had to determine whether the applicant had a disability under the MHRA, which defines disability in relevant part, as “a physical impairment which substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities,” and includes “being regarded as having such an impairment[.]” Because the applicant alleged that Ford regarded him as having an impairment, he had to prove the company either: (1) wrongly believed he had an impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities or (2) wrongly believed that an actual, nonlimiting impairment substantially limited one or more major life activities.

Further, observed the court, the inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation on the major life activity of working. Rather, a “substantial limitation on the major life activity of working means that an individual must be significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes.”

Broad range of jobs. The applicant first argued that the district court erred in finding he failed to show Ford believed he was unemployable elsewhere at a broad range of jobs as it sua sponte addressed his claim as “an impairment from working or gripping” and not as an “actual impairment of an anatomical loss of his left foreman and hand, affecting his musculoskeletal functions.” Citing State ex rel. Sir v. Gateway Taxi Management Co., a state appeals court case, he contended that “when the claim is that the applicant’s impairment, other than working, affects employability, the MHRA does not require the applicant to provide evidence of the employer’s perception that the applicant is restricted from performing a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes.”

But Sir, the Eighth Circuit observed, explained that “‘working’ or ‘employment’ are not the only major life activities that affect employability” because “‘ambulation’” is also a major life activity under the MHRA. However, the employee did not allege he was substantially limited in performing the major life activity of ambulation or identify a major life activity other than working or employment that would be sufficient, standing alone, to support his claim, said the court, and here, employment was the most applicable major life activity.

MHRA vs. ADA. Moreover, the court pointed out, while the ADA protects the loss of the operation of musculoskeletal functions for purposes of a major life activity, the MHRA does not. Further, under the federal statute, an individual is considered disabled under a regarded-as-having-an-impairment theory “if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under th[e ADA] because of an actual or perceived physical . . . impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.”

But here, observed the court, under the MHRA, even if the applicant established he had a physical impairment, he still had to show that Ford wrongly believed the physical impairment substantially limited a major life activity. And because this case only involved the major life activity of working or employment, the broad-range-of-jobs standard applied and, therefore, the district court did not err in using that standard.

No relevance. The applicant next argued that the district court erred in finding he had not satisfied the broad-range-of-jobs standard because Ford considered him permanently restricted from all 700 assembly line jobs at the plant. The senior labor representative testified that if an employee receives a “no gripping” restriction, he is placed on medical, “no work available” status until the restrictions are removed because the employee cannot do the work. But that was not relevant to whether Ford regarded the applicant as significantly restricted from performing either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes.

As to the notation on his medical form that “[m]ost jobs @ KCAP require the use of both hands/arms)” and that the plant was “unable to accommodate a one-hand restriction @ this time,” this simply showed Ford regarded him as unable to perform the entry-level assembler job and not that it regarded him as significantly restricted from performing either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes.

No preclusion. Finally, the court rejected the applicant’s argument that Ford was precluded from relitigating the issue of whether it regarded him as significantly restricted from performing either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes because this issue was fully and adversely determined against Ford in Peterson v. Ford Motor Co., a 2006 state appeals court decision. Because he failed to raise this issue before the district court, he waived it, said the court here, finding that his claim of discrimination under the MHRA failed.

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