7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on ADA Claim

On December 30, 2020, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer-defendant in a federal lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  McAllister v. Innovation Ventures, LLC, No. 20-1779 (7th Cir. 12/30/2020).  The plaintiff, a machine operator, was injured in a car accident and consequently could not return to work.  The defendant terminated her employment since she could still not return to work after she had exhausted her leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA").  The defendant maintained a company policy that employees who were unable to return to work after six months of leave would be terminated.  The plaintiff filed a failure-to-accommodate lawsuit under the ADA.

The 7th Circuit upheld the district court's ruling that the plaintiff was not a qualified individual under the ADA and, therefore, had no valid ADA failure-to-accommodate claim.  The ADA requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations to a qualified individual with a disability--a disabled employee who can perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation.  However, the plaintiff's own doctor's orders--that she could not perform any job functions or work safely--established that she was not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA.  Her doctor's orders precluded her from working not only as a machine operator, but in any capacity.  As a result, she could also not maintain her claim that the defendant failed to accommodate her by not considering her for other positions.  In addition, the plaintiff's argument that the defendant could have provided her with extended long-term leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation failed.  A long-term leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA because attendance is an essential job function.  The "inability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA."  Thus, the plaintiff was not a qualified individual under the ADA; and, consequently, summary judgment was warranted on her ADA failure-to-accommodate claims.

It is interesting to note that the district court also held that the plaintiff was equitably estopped from arguing that she was a qualified individual under the ADA because she had received disability insurance benefits based on representations that she was unable to work.  The 7th Circuit did not reach this issue in its decision.  Employment lawyers and human resources personnel should be aware of the inherent contradiction between an employee's application under a disability insurance policy for long-term disability benefits--which requires the employee to certify that she is unable to work--and the employee's failure-to-accommodate claim under the ADA--which requires the employee to establish that she is able to work (with or without reasonable accommodation).  The contradiction could jeopardize an employee's ADA disability claim or her long-term disability insurance benefits.