Friday, May 13, 2011

Federal Court Says Acrophobic Bridge Worker May Be Entitled to Low-Altitude Duty

How many bridge workers do you know who are deathly afraid of heights?  Probably none.  After all, doesn’t working at extreme heights sort of come with the job?  So when a bridge worker asks for low-altitude duty and threatens to knock a female manager’s teeth out when his request is denied, his termination for making threats shouldn’t give rise to a claim of disability discrimination, right?  Not so fast, says a federal appeals court.

The employee in question had worked on a bridge maintenance crew for five years and his job regularly required the performance of tasks at extreme heights.  By all accounts, he had always had a problem with heights, and fellow crew members had informally accommodated his fear to some degree by not making him work on the highest and most exposed parts of bridges.  Nonetheless, there were times when he was still required to crawl along catwalks, navigate around exposed holes, and work on hydraulic lifts that extended up to 80 feet in the air.

The employee suffered a panic attack when he was assigned the job of changing light bulbs on a bridge over the Mississippi River.  A doctor formally diagnosed him as suffering from acrophobia and concluded that he was unfit to work in bridge maintenance because of his condition.  The employee insisted he could still perform some aspects of his job, however, and requested that he not be assigned to work on bridge beams and other extreme places over 20-25 feet in height.  The employer denied the request.

The employee was fired after saying that he wanted to knock a female manager’s teeth out for not granting him the requested accommodation.  Claiming that the firing was actually because his supervisors regarded him as disabled, he sued under the ADA.  The trial court dismissed the case, finding that the requested accommodation was unreasonable because working at heights above 25 feet was an essential function of the job.  The appeals court, however, disagreed.

It decided that the employer treated the worker as though he was unable to perform a wide range of jobs that went beyond his particular job as a bridge worker.  On that basis, a jury could find that the employer regarded him as disabled.  Moreover, the appeals court said, working at heights was not necessarily an essential function of the job because of the “team concept” utilized by the employer.  While some members of the plaintiff’s work crew “had to be able to work at heights in exposed or extreme positions so that the bridge crew — as a unit — could do its job, some members of the crew had to be able to weld, ride in the snooper bucket, spray, mow, and rake . . .”  Thus, it was up to a jury to decide whether, in this particular case, working at heights in an exposed or extreme position was an essential function of the plaintiff’s job.  If a jury decided that it was not an essential function, then the requested accommodation could be seen as a reasonable one that should have been granted.

Finally, the court decided that a jury might find the threat against the female manager to be a red herring.  It observed that other employees who had engaged in threatening behavior were not necessarily terminated.  It also noted that a jury might reasonably find that the statement about wanting to knock out her teeth “was not a ‘threat’ at all, or that even if [the employer] properly construed it as such, its decision to terminate [the worker] was a disingenuous overreaction to justify dismissal of an annoying employee who asserted his rights under the ADA.”

Thus, the case was sent back to the trial court so that a jury could decide the various disputed issues.  The lawsuit will probably settle without ever going to trial, so you can read what likely will be the final chapter in this dispute here.

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