Summary Judgment on ADA Claim Overturned Using Relaxed Standards Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act (2008 - ADAAA)

The case is Cannon v. Jacobs Field Services (JFS) decided on January 13, 2016 by the 5th Circuit Court [2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 531].  The facts of the cases were that JFS made Michael Cannon, a mechanical engineer with 20 years experience, a conditional job offer to be a field engineer in its Colorado mining site.  The offer was rescinded after a medical exam revealed that Cannon had unsuccessful surgery on a rotator cuff injury, and was prescribed a pain killer (Tramadol).  Cannon sued under the ADA and the District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled in favor of JFS in a summary judgment, ruling that Cannon could not prove he was disabled under the ADA or that he was qualified to perform the essential functions of the job.  The 5th Circuit overturned the district court, ruling that the ADAAA expanded that definition of disability to include functions such as lifting and reaching, and that there was a questionable issue as to whether he was qualified.

Responding to Cannon’s complaint, the EEOC made three findings: (1) JFC failed to engage in the interactive process to consider reasonable accommodations; (2) accommodations recommended by Cannon’s doctor would not have imposed an undue hardship on JFS; and (3) JFS posed no threat to himself or others.  JFS refused to engage in EEOC-directed conciliation, and the EEOC granted him a right to sue notice.

There were several interesting rulings by the 5th Circuit.  Regarding the ADAA’s expanded definition, Cannon was disabled because he had a physical condition that affected major life activities such as lifting and reaching, activities that prior to the ADAAA were not considered major life activities.  The 5th Circuit also ruled that JFS regarded Cannon as being disabled.

Regarding the interactive process, it is a common ruling that the plaintiff must initiate a claim for reasonable accommodation, which Cannon did not do.  However, the 5th Circuit ruled that JFS should have initiated the process because it knew what Cannon’s limitations were.

Regarding whether Cannon was qualified (i.e., could perform the essential functions of the job, JFS maintained that (1) Cannon could not perform the essential function of driving because Tramadol is an opiate and (2) he could not perform the essential function of climbing a ladder.  Cannon did not dispute that both were essential functions, but offered the doctor’s evidence that he was weaned off the drug; indeed, he tested negative for opiates in a drug test.  As for climbing ladders, Cannon presented direct evidence in the form of a video showing him climbing a ladder.

The 5th Circuit also cited EEOC interpretive guidance on the ADAAA stating: “whether an individual's impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity should not demand extensive analysis”, and that “Cannon's shoulder impairment substantially limited his ability to perform major activities as compared to most people in the general population.”

Historically, proving disability under the ADA had been a challenging task.  The Cannon ruling illustrates that employers need to carefully scrutinize what constitutes major life activities under the ADAAA.

By Art Gutman, Ph.D., Professor, Florida Institute of Technology

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