Massachusetts Employment Law Letter

Disability or no disability: that is the question!

Since the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), employers in Massachusetts have struggled with what is and what is not a disability.  After the ADA amendments, ailments that had not previously been considered disabilities suddenly were covered under the federal definition.  To make matters more difficult, there is a distinction between the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute and ADA when it comes to determining whether a person is disabled/handicapped.  Even though the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute and the ADA define disability/handicap similarly as “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities of a person,” the distinction lies in the meaning of “substantially limits.” In a recent case, Murray v. Warren Pumps, LLC, the court examined the difference between the two.

“Oh my aching back!”

In April 2008, Raymond Murray was rehired at Warren Pumps as a Safety and Compliance Manager.  When rehired, Warren Pumps was aware that Murray had ongoing back problems that prohibited him from lifting more than ten pounds and from standing, sitting, or walking for an extended period of time.  Murray had a long history of back problems, including a herniated disc and back surgery that fused his vertebrae.  Murray’s back issues were also aggravated by a car accident in 2010.

After he was rehired, Murray requested a number of accommodations for his back, including time off to go to the doctors, light duty, lifting restrictions, standing/sitting restrictions, a flexible start time, and an ergonomics work station to avoid headaches and pain.

Murray complained that Warren Pumps repeatedly required him to violate his restrictions.  Specifically, Murray claimed that his supervisor, Matthew Korzec, requested that Murray manage a project that he claimed required him to be at both ends of the facility.  According to Murray, this project required him to walk more than his restrictions permitted; gave him unnecessary paperwork, which caused him to violate his sitting restrictions; asked him to paint, which he did not do; asked him to do some electrical work, which required carrying a toolbox; and asked him to accept a shipment over ten pounds because the shipping department employees had already gone home.

What’s in a definition?  A lot.

In June 2011, Murray’s employment with Warren Pumps ended.  Warren Pumps maintained that Murray quit; Murray claimed he was fired.  Murray then filed a lawsuit in which he alleged, among other things, that he was discriminated against based on his disability (his back injury) under both the ADA and the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute and that Warren Pumps failed to accommodate his disability.  Before the case went to trial, Warren Pumps requested that the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismiss the case.  The trial court agreed with Warren Pumps and dismissed the case before it proceeded to trial.

In doing so, the court noted that both the ADA and state law prohibit employers from discriminating against individuals with real or perceived disabilities.  In order to be successful on a claim under either statute for disability discrimination, an individual must show that he is disabled; that he is capable of performing the job with or without a reasonable accommodation; that an adverse action was taken; and that the employer filled the position the individual held.  Likewise, in order to establish a claim for failure to accommodate, an individual must prove that he is disabled; that he can perform the essential functions of his job with or without an accommodation; that he requested an accommodation; and that the employer refused that accommodation and that he suffered harm as a result.

When examining whether Murray was disabled under the statutes, the court noted that the ADA and state law both define disability as a “physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activity.”  But, however, the ADA and state law differ on what “substantially limits” really means.  Murray and Warren Pumps both agreed that Murray’s back condition was an impairment and that it impacted major life activities, but they disagreed over whether those major life activities were substantially limited.

No claim under MA law

Under the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, an individual is “substantially limited” if the impairment prohibits or significantly restricts a person’s ability to perform a major life activity as compared to the ability of the average person in the general population.  In support of his assertion that he was disabled due to his back condition, Murray claimed that he could only stand, sit, or walk for up to two hours at a time; could not climb stairs; lost two to three hours of sleep each night due to chronic pain; and could not lift more than ten pounds.

After examining the standard under Massachusetts law and Murray’s restrictions, the court determined that under state law, Murray was not disabled and, therefore, could not proceed to trial on his state claims for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate.  The court reasoned that the inability to walk, stand, or sit was not a disability because Murray was capable of walking unassisted, although not for long periods of time; that difficulty sleeping is widespread throughout the general population; and that heavy lifting is something that others, including the weak, elderly, and those who are out-of-shape, are also unable to do.  The court also took a look at whether his back pain restricted his ability to work and found that it did not.  The court noted that in order to prove such a claim, Murray had to show that his back injury precluded him from working in a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs.  Murray’s work history, which included his transfer to other positions and rehire, demonstrated that he was not restricted in his ability to work.  Accordingly, the court found that Murray’s claims under the state anti-discrimination statute failed because he was not disabled as defined by the statute.

What about the ADA?

The court then turned to the analysis under the recently amended ADA.  Although the federal regulations provide that “substantially limited” is measured by comparing the individual to most people in the general populations, the regulations also repeatedly emphasize that the standard is not meant to be demanding and that the focus under the ADA should be on whether employers have met their obligations and whether discrimination has occurred.  As a result, the court determined that Murray had articulated enough restrictions related to his back injury to have a jury determine whether he was, in fact, disabled.

Assuming that Murray was disabled, the court then turned its attention to whether Warren Pumps had failed to provide a reasonable accommodation to Murray.  The court noted that employers must make reasonable accommodations if the accommodation(s) would allow an individual to perform the essential functions of his or her position.  The court found that Murray could not establish a claim for failure to accommodate.

Although Murray had several restrictions for which he requested time off, light duty, lifting restrictions, standing/sitting restrictions, a flexible start time, no over-time, periodic breaks, and an ergonomics work station, he admitted that he was granted all but two of the accommodations.  Specifically, he claimed that he was not given breaks or the ergonomic work station.  He also argued that Warren Pumps had effectively denied his lifting restriction because he was asked to paint, move a toolbox, and accept a shipment.

Because Murray admitted that the majority of his accommodation requests were granted, the court first focused on whether Warren Pumps’ refusal to provide breaks and an ergonomic work station was a failure to accommodate his disability under the ADA.  The court determined that Murray had no evidence to show that he had requested breaks, never mind that they were denied.  Further, in Murray’s complaint, he alleged that his only disability was his back injury; he did not allege that he was disabled due to the injuries he suffered in his 2010 car accident.  Because Murray admitted that the request for the ergonomic work station was related to his car accident, rather than his back injury, the court determined that failure to grant his request was not a violation of the statute.

The court was left to examine whether Warren Pumps effectively denied Murray’s lifting restriction request when Korzec asked him to perform three distinct tasks:  paint, carry a toolbox, and accept a shipment.  The court found that Warren Pumps did not.

Although Korzec did ask Murray to paint, the court found that Murray had refused.  Accordingly, his lifting restriction was not violated by this request.  Turning to the request that he carry a toolbox, the court noted that although Murray ended up carrying the toolbox, he had pulled someone else off of the floor to assist him and could have used the person to carry the toolbox.  The court determined that even though Murray did carry the toolbox, the incident was isolated and was not sufficient to demonstrate that Warren Pumps failed to accommodate him.  Lastly, the court looked at the request to accept the shipment. It was undisputed that Korzec told Murray that he had to accept the shipment, but it was also evident that Murray never reminded Korzec of his restriction.  The court again determined that the isolated incident was not enough to establish a claim.  Accordingly, the court determined that although he may be disabled under the ADA standard, Murray could not demonstrate that Warren Pumps failed to accommodate his disability.  As a result, Murray’s claims did not proceed to trial.  The case is Murray v. Warren Pumps (D. Mass. 2013).

Bottom line

This is a decision from a lower, trial court and is therefore not binding on any other court that might be reviewing disability discrimination claims.  However, the court’s decision is certainly instructive concerning the difference between state and federal standards.  Although the employers in this case were able to avoid a trial, other employers have not been so lucky.  Since the ADA amendments, more impairments constitute disabilities under the statute.  As a result, employers must carefully consider accommodation requests if an accommodation would allow a disabled employee to perform the essential functions of the position.  Failure to do so could get you in trouble!  Because the analysis can be tricky and have severe consequences, employers should discuss these requests with their labor and employment counsel.

Employers that have employees who are on the border of exempt managerial employees under the current regulations are well-advised to consult their labor and employment counsel to check on the progress of proposed revisions to the regulations and determine what they should do before the new regulations are in place.

Article By: Amelia Holstrom

Reprinted from the August 2014 issue of the  Massachusetts Employment Law Letter.