Last month, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment dismissal of an ADA claim that the defendant employer failed to accommodate the plaintiff’s PTSD by transferring her away from her supervisor, which was apparently her only trigger. Tinsley v. Caterpillar Financial Svs. Corp., No. 18-5303 (6th Cir. 3/20/19). The plaintiff claimed to only be disabled in the ability to work with that particular supervisor and did not claim to be impaired outside of the workplace or in her job duties. However, the Court concluded that being disabled from working requires being unable to work in a broad class or range of jobs, not just with one job, in one workplace or for one particular supervisor. Because she was not “disabled” under the ADA, the employer was not required to provide her with any accommodation and did not constructively discharge her. Because the employer failed to address her FMLA retaliation claim on appeal, the case was remanded for that issue.
According to the Court’s opinion, the plaintiff reported in mid-April that her changed family and work responsibilities were stressing her out and requested to be removed from a team assignment. She then took three days of FMLA medical leave. Some of her assignments were reassigned and she indicated that this improved her mental health. Two months later, her work performance was criticized as well as her leaving early without approval and four months later she was placed on a performance improvement plan. She claimed that the PIP was in retaliation because she complained about co-workers bouncing stress balls at work. She then protested the PIP, claimed a hostile work environment created by co-worker horseplay, and said the unreasonable deadlines from a new assignment created too much stress, although other steps taken since her first complaint had improved her stress level. An investigation of her concerns did not substantiate them. She took another month of medical leave and was returned to work without restrictions with the recommendation that she be transferred to a different manager. Instead, the employer granted her another 8 weeks of medical leave – putting her at 18 weeks of time off. By January, the plaintiff was informed that she would not be transferred and would not be approved for more medical leave. The plaintiff then retired and filed suit.
This Court has previously held that to be substantially limited from working––and thus eligible for ADA protection––an individual must be 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.” Swanson, 268 F.3d at 317 (citation omitted). Following this Court’s decision in Swanson, Congress enacted the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which relaxed the definition of “substantially limited” and noted that establishing a qualifying disability is not meant to be a demanding standard. . . . Additionally, due to the broader definition of “substantially limited” under the Amendments, the interpretative guide produced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) notes that the major life activity of working “will be used in only very targeted situations” to determine whether an individual is disabled.
In such “targeted situations,” however, the EEOC has largely endorsed the pre-Amendments analysis for determining whether a person’s claimed impairment sufficiently impacts the major life activity of “working.” Specifically, the EEOC’s interpretive guide explains that an individual who asserts that she is disabled because she is unable to perform the major life activity of “working” must still show that “the impairment substantially limits . . . her ability to perform a class of jobs or broad range of jobs in various classes.” Id. The EEOC further states that “[d]emonstrating a substantial limitation in performing the unique aspects of a single specific job is not sufficient to establish that a person is substantially limited in the major life activity of working.” Id. Thus, to the extent the Amendments have altered the scope of the ADA’s protections, a plaintiff who asserts that her impairment substantially limits the major life activity of “working” is still required to show that her impairment limits her ability to “perform a class of jobs or broad range of jobs.”
. . . .
the record is replete with undisputed evidence showing that Tinsley’s issues stemmed directly from Kaikaris’ management style as opposed to the responsibilities of a broad range of jobs. The clearest example of this is when Tinsley told Human Resources that she would be able to continue in the same position so long as she was under the direction of a different supervisor because her disability was triggered by “the way [Kaikaris] managed . . . with all the ball bouncing.” . . . For instance, on August 19, when Tinsley emailed Human Resources to request a new position, she explained that “the work itself was not the primary issue.” And in the Charge of Discrimination, Tinsley wrote that the company could have accommodated her disability by switching her supervisor. Last, her doctor cleared her to return to work at one point “at full capacity,” suggesting only that the company switch her supervisor to alleviate any medical concerns. Tinsley’s diagnosis does not limit her ability to work a broad class of jobs; rather, it relates solely to her ability to work under a specific manager. Accordingly, she is not “disabled” pursuant to the ADA and was thus not entitled to a reasonable accommodation of additional time off or a transfer.
The Court rejected her argument that her PTSD precluded her from working in a broad range of high-stress jobs because she consistently related her stress to her particular manager’s style and not to the type of work being performed.
Importantly, Tinsley’s physician cleared Tinsley to return to work without restrictions. The only recommendation that Tinsley’s physician made––to have Tinsley transfer to a different supervisor––related to her stress level under Kaikaris specifically. This is further illustrated by the fact that, when offered the same position under a different supervisor, Tinsley agreed that she would be able to perform the job duties. Thus, Tinsley’s limitations were more accurately a product of the “unique aspect” of her “single specific job,” i.e., working as an analyst under Kaikaris’ particular management style. Id. Although we can certainly theorize a case in which an employee’s disability actually limited her from engaging in a broad range of similarly high-stress positions, Tinsley has not pointed to any record evidence permitting us to make that necessary inference.
Finally, the Court noted that she had sufficiently alleged a prima facie case of FMLA retaliation when she received her negative performance evaluation within two months of taking three days of FMLA leave. Because that issue had not been addressed on appeal, it was remanded for further consideration.
NOTICE: This summary is designed merely to inform and alert you of recent legal developments. It does not constitute legal advice and does not apply to any particular situation because different facts could lead to different results. Information here can be changed or amended without notice. Readers should not act upon this information without legal advice. If you have any questions about anything you have read, you should consult with or retain an employment attorney.