• Worker’s Heart Condition Poses Direct Threat to Safety under ADA, Federal Appeals Court Rules
  • May 15, 2012 | Authors: Brian G. Nuedling; Robert J. Simandl
  • Law Firm: Jackson Lewis LLP - Waukesha Office
  • An employee with a heart condition who poses a direct threat to workplace safety does not have a viable claim of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati has ruled. Wurzel v. Whirlpool Corp., No. 10-3629 (6th Cir. Apr. 27, 2012). The appellate court held that an employer may lawfully restrict the placement of an employee with a disabling medical condition if the employer reasonably concludes the employee cannot perform the duties of his job safely. Under such circumstances, the disabled employee is not “qualified” for a job because the threat posed to the health or safety of the employee or others cannot be resolved through a “reasonable accommodation.”

    The Facts

    Brian Wurzel was an Ohio factory worker who joined Whirlpool Corp. in 1983 as a materials handler. He had no significant health issues until 2003, when he began complaining of chest pains. In 2007, Wurzel was diagnosed with Prinzmetal’s angina, a condition characterized by coronary artery spasms that cause chest tightness, shortness of breath, dizziness, and fatigue. Though Wurzel was medically cleared to return to his job as a forklift driver, he began having angina spasms at work in March 2008. By February 2009, he had experienced at least 11 spasm incidents at work, most of which required treatment at the plant’s emergency room. In one incident, according to court records, Wurzel was found doubled-over and “ready to pass out.”

    When the first heart spasm occurred, the plant physician expressed concerns for the safety of Wurzel and others if Wurzel ever became incapacitated. Despite a clean driving record and assurances from Wurzel’s cardiologists that Wurzel posed no greater threat of sudden incapacitation than any other angina patient, the plant physician prohibited Wurzel from driving a forklift. Wurzel subsequently was reassigned to a temporary position in the plant’s gatekeeper/tollkeeper unit.

    In October 2008, Wurzel took a permanent job in the plant’s paint department. While free of forklift driving, the job called for rotating through a series of tasks that included working with or around a “low-hanging” overhead conveyor line. When Wurzel experienced another angina spasm, the plant physician referred him for an independent medical examination, which was performed in November 2008. Court records show that, as with his cardiologists, Wurzel was not entirely forthcoming with the independent medical examiner regarding the extent of his condition. Although Wurzel was permitted to return to the paint department in December 2008, he experienced three angina spasms at work in January 2009. Based on these incidents, information from the plant physician, and the fact that Wurzel worked around heavy machinery and occasionally was out of the sight of other employees, the independent medical examiner reversed his opinion and concluded that Wurzel should not be permitted to work either alone or near moving machinery.

    Wurzel subsequently went on sick leave. In August 2009, the company conducted a “restriction review” regarding Wurzel’s job in the paint department and concluded he was not qualified for it because he could not work alone or near moving machinery, both of which were requirements of the job. Wurzel was told he could bid on any other job in the plant that conformed with his work restrictions. Wurzel remained on leave, exhausting 26 weeks of paid leave and taking unpaid time thereafter. He eventually returned to work in March 2010, claiming he had been spasm-free for the previous six months.

    The Litigation

    Wurzel filed suit against the employer in March 2009, claiming disability discrimination and related claims. Given the timing of the events, Wurzel’s lawsuit was potentially subject to analysis under both the ADA and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, which became effective on January 1, 2009. Regardless, the district court dismissed the case on summary-judgment grounds, finding no merit to Wurzel’s claims and concluding the employer was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Wurzel filed an appeal only as to the ADA claims.

    ADA

    The ADA prohibits “covered” entities from discriminating against individuals with a disability in regard to hiring, advancement, discharge, or the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. An individual may establish a disability by showing the presence of: 1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities; 2) a record of such an impairment; or 3) “being regarded” as having such an impairment.

    The ADA requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” disabled employees.

    An employer can avoid liability for discrimination if it can establish that the employment of the individual would pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of others. Federal regulations define a “direct threat” as “a significant risk of substantial harm to the health and safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated by reasonable accommodation.” A showing of “direct threat” must be based on “a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence.” When considering whether an individual poses a direct threat, factors to be considered include the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and the imminence of the potential harm.

    Appeals Court Decision

    The appellate court noted that the employer’s plant has 2,500 employees and six operating assembly lines, all of which use moving machinery. Workers operate presses, drills, cutting machinery, and numerous vehicles (including forklifts). Forklifts and pedestrians travel the plant’s shared space, with only painted lines to separate them. In addition to a work environment that calls for extreme care, the Court noted Wurzel’s acknowledgement, in a deposition, that there was no way of knowing when his medical condition might flare up, whether it would cause a artery spasm, or how long it would last.

    Based on all of the evidence, the Court (which has jurisdiction over the states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee) affirmed summary judgment for the employer. The Court concluded the employer had utilized the most current medical knowledge to reach a reasonable medical judgment that Wurzel posed a direct threat to workplace safety. While the employer was not required to reasonably accommodate Wurzel (since his claims of “being regarded” as disabled did not carry such an obligation), the Court concluded that the employer had engaged in a non-discriminatory process to determine the threat that Wurzel posed and, based on the best data available, had made an objective decision regarding Wurzel’s job-related abilities.

    Best Practices

    While Wurzel is welcome news, employers should be cautious when faced with circumstances that might raise considerations under the ADA, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and even workers’ compensation laws. These involve fact-intensive inquiries, and each case is likely to be different. Thus, a thorough review should be undertaken before considering any employment action.