July 22, 2011

Disqualifying applicants for a particular job

Disqualifying applicants for a particular job
EEOC v Woodbridge Corp., CA8, 263 F.3d 812
Mathews v The Denver Post, CA10, 2001 WL 967797

The Woodbridge and Mathews cases concern similar issues: disqualifying an individual with a disability for a particular job or assignment.

The Woodbridge case asks: Does the employer violate the ADA if it rejects an applicant a particular job because test reveal that he or she is susceptible to certain types of injuries?

The Mathews case asks: Does the employer violate the ADA if it rejects an employee with epilepsy for a job because an essential function of the job requires the operation of heavy machinery?

The Woodbridge Case

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the Woodbridge Corporation, contending that it violated the ADA when it excluded nineteen applicants for jobs on one of its manufacturing lines because of test results that indicate those applicants may be susceptible to sustaining injuries from repetitive motion.

The Circuit Court affirmed a district court's determination that the ADA was not violated as such individuals were not “disabled” within the meaning of the ADA.

EEOC alleged that Woodbridge unlawfully discriminated against individuals rejected because they were determined to be more likely than others to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.

The company, a producer of polyurethane foam pads used in automobile seats, based its decisions rejecting these applicants on the basis of results of a test designed to reflect abnormal wrist neurometric readings in connection with repetitive wrist motions that its workers on a specific manufacturing foam line would experience.*

Applicants with abnormal neurometry readings were not hired for these foam line production positions although they were considered to be eligible for jobs in other areas within the Woodbridge's plant. EEOC, however, contended that Woodbridge discriminated against the rejected applicants on the basis of “a perceived disability, as Woodbridge regarded the applicants as substantially limited in the ability to work.”

The Circuit Court said that the ADA defines disability as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” Major life activities include caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, learning and working.**

According to the ruling, an impairment is “substantially limiting” if it renders an individual unable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform, or if it significantly restricts the condition, manner, or duration under which an individual can perform a particular major life activity as compared to an average person in the general population. Such a determination is to be made on a case-by-case basis.

The district court held that the “only documented perception of the [rejected] applicants is that they were not physically qualified to perform the unique requirements of [specific] Woodbridge manufacturing positions. This perception does not prevent the applicants from obtaining employment in a broad class of jobs.”

In contrast, a person is deemed to be substantially limited with respect to working if he or she is “significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills, and abilities.”

In making such a determination, the court considers such factors as the number and type of jobs from which the impaired individual is disqualified; the geographical area to which the individual has reasonable access; and the individual's job training, experience, and expectations.

As the purpose of the ADA is to prevent “substantial personal hardship in the form of significant reduction in a person's real work opportunities,” the court must ask if a person's particular impairment constitutes a significant barrier to employment in a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs.

The issue here was whether the nineteen applicants were regarded as “significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skill, and abilities.”

According to the decision, “the inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.”

What is required to prevail? Proof that the individual's overall employment opportunities are limited rather than being viewed as unqualified for a particular job or assignment. In other words, it is necessary to show that the individual is precluded from being selected for more than one type of job. Being disqualified for but a single, specialized job or a particular job of choice does not satisfy this requirement.

In the words of the Circuit Court: If jobs utilizing an individual's skills are available, one is not precluded from a substantial class of jobs. Similarly, if a host of different types of jobs are available, one is not precluded from a broad range of jobs.

Finding that the nineteen applicants represented by EEOC were not precluded from employment in more than one type of specialized job, the Circuit Court sustained the lower court's granting summary judgment dismissing EEOC's complaint.

The Mathews Case

In Mathews, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, ruled that an employee with epilepsy is not qualified for a job as a journey-level mailer at a newspaper because an essential function of his job requires his operating heavy machinery.

John Mathews sued his former employer, the Denver Post, claiming that it had laid him off in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court granted summary judgment to the Post, holding that Mathews had not shown he was a disabled person within the meaning of the Act, nor had he shown he was qualified to do his job during the period November 1994 to May 1996.***

The Circuit Court affirmed the lower court's determination.

Mathews, who started working for the Post in 1983, was promoted to journeyman level mailer in 1988, and is currently employed by the Post. Mathews suffers from epilepsy, including grand mal seizures. He suffered a grand mal seizure on September 6, 1994 and was hospitalization for two days. His doctor told him not to return to work for one month.

Based on the information received from Mathews' personal physician, Dr. Jack Sylman, in a letter dated October 8, 1994, the Post terminated Mathews on the grounds that his medical restrictions prevented him from performing the essential functions of his job. At the same time the Post attempted to assist Mathews by looking for a position at the newspaper that he could perform without offending his medical restrictions.

Dr. Sylman stated that Mathews did have an epileptic seizure and “I would not be comfortable with him either driving, or being near or operating heavy equipment for at least three months. This is a fairly standard guideline generally accepted within the community.” Dr. Sylman also told the Post that Mathews has epilepsy and has had isolated grand mal seizures, some of which have occurred at work. He also said that: Unfortunately there is no cure for this condition though reasonable control has been achieved with Dilantin. However, I cannot assure him that he might not have isolated sporadic seizures without warning. Ideally, it would be best if he were not to drive or work around heavy machinery.

Mathews sought to return to work, suggesting that the Post accommodate him by letting him do the part of the journey-level mailer job that did not involve working with machines. The Post rejected the proposal. On May 9, 1996, Mathews's doctor lifted his medical restrictions, stating that he “should be able to drive or work with machinery.” The Post then rehired Mathews back at his old job.

Mathews sued the Post, claiming that the Post discharged him in violation of the ADA, failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability, and fired him in retaliation for filing a complaint with the EEOC.

The district court held that Mathews had not shown that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA. Although Mathews argued that his epilepsy substantially limited him in the major life activity of working, the court decided that he was only able to show that his epilepsy interfered with his ability to do particular jobs. To prevail in his ADA action, Mathews was required to show that he was unable to do a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in order to establish that there was a substantial limitation on his ability to work.

Further, said the court, Mathews had not shown he was a qualified individual, because he could not perform the journey-level mailer's job while he was under doctor's orders not to work with or around dangerous machinery.

Mathews appealed. The Circuit Court dismissed the appeal, concluding that the district court had ruled correctly on the qualification issue and thus it was unnecessary to address the question of whether Mathews was disabled.

* The test used by Woodbridge for this evaluation was discontinue as the company had concerns as to its reliability.

** In Sutton v United Air Lines, Inc., 527 US 471, the Supreme Court suggested, but did not specifically hold, that working was a major life activity

*** Relying on Mathews' physician's statement, the Post did not allow Mathews to work during this period.


Subsequent court and administrative rulings, or changes to laws, rules and regulations may have modified or clarified or vacated or reversed the decisions summarized here. Accordingly, these summaries should be Shepardized® or otherwise checked to make certain that the most recent information is being considered by the reader.
New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor NYPPL and, or, its staff and contributors are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
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