Blind Reliance On Pre-Employment Physical Resulted In ADA Violation

By:  Claudia D. Orr

A school district not only had its motion for Summary Judgment denied, it had Summary Judgment granted against it in an Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) case by a judge on the Eastern District of Michigan bench. Because this result is highly unusual, let’s look at LaFata v Dearborn Heights School District to see how the School District’s decision to withdraw a job offer went wrong so that you don’t make the same mistake.

At the time Plaintiff LaFata applied for the position of Plant Engineer with the School District, he had been working as a building supervisor at the Lincoln Park Community Center for ten years. In the building supervisor position, LaFata was responsible for the complete maintenance of the Community Center, both inside and out, including the heating, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical, roof repairs, refrigeration of the ice rink, pool maintenance, etc. Significantly, in his position, LaFata regularly climbed ladders and carried in excess of forty pounds.

After his second interview, the School District extended an offer of employment contingent upon the drug screen, pre-employment physical and background check. During LaFata’s physical, the doctor at Midwest Health Systems noticed that he had some difficulty climbing up on the examination table. The doctor also noted some muscle atrophy in LaFata’s legs and that he was unable to walk on his heels or toes.

After further examination, the doctor concluded that LaFata had Charcot Marie Tooth syndrome which causes muscle deterioration and a loss of strength over time. The doctor provided LaFata with a note to be taken to his family doctor. The family doctor agreed with the diagnosis but indicated that LaFata’s strength was sufficient to perform daily activities and she concluded that LaFata was “suitable” for the job at issue.

At some point, the Midwest doctor informed the School District that LaFata should only perform ground level work and be restricted from climbing ladders (because he may not be able to dorsi-flex his foot up or down while maneuvering the ladder) and lifting more than forty pounds. The record was not clear whether the doctor felt these restrictions were necessary presently, or in the future. However, based on the information provided by Midwest, the School District withdrew the job offer indicating that the “doctor determined that you would only be able to work with some major restrictions.  Considering the type of position that you are seeking, it is not possible for us to employ you with restrictions that indicate you can only work at ground level and cannot lift anything over 40 pounds.”

LaFata filed a lawsuit claiming, among other things, that the School District violated the ADA in withdrawing the job offer. Both the School District and LaFata filed motions seeking judgment as a matter of law. During the hearing, the School District argued, for the first time, that LaFata did not have a disability under the ADA. The judge rejected this argument because it was first raised at oral argument and because the School District undoubtedly regarded LaFata as disabled as it withdrew the job offer.[1]

The court noted that the ADA requires “an individualized inquiry in determining whether an employee’s disability or other condition disqualifies him from a particular position” Here, the Midwest physician’s examination “was neither thorough nor comprehensive” and the School District failed in its duty to “assure itself that his examination and analysis were thorough and/or reasonable.”  The court found it significant that the opinion did not come from a treating physician and that the examination was cursory.

The court stated that the inquiry by the School District should have been whether the candidate could perform the essential functions of the position with or without a reasonable accommodation and no analysis of accommodation was ever made. The School District had an obligation to engage in an interactive process with LaFata to determine if there was a reasonable accommodation that would allow him to fulfill the duties of the job.

Thus, not only did the judge deny the School District’s motion, it granted LaFata’s motion for judgment and set the case for trial on damages only.

What is the take away?  First, before withdrawing a job offer based on notice of restrictions from the clinic, the employer should consider the following additional steps: (1) inquire about the scope of the examination, (2) allow the applicant to provide clarification from the treating physician, (3) provide the applicant with the opportunity to demonstrate their ability if they so choose, and (4) engage in the interactive process concerning reasonable accommodations.

More importantly, employers should seek legal counsel from an experienced employment attorney when ADA issues arise. This is a complex law that is laden with nuances that can result in significant liability.

This article was written by Claudia D. Orr, a member of the Legal Affairs Committee. Claudia is an experienced employment attorney at Plunkett Cooney and can be reached at corr@plunkettcooney.com or 313-983-4863.

Detroit SHRM encourages members to share these articles within their organizations; however, members should refrain from forwarding them outside their organizations or printing for mass distribution without written permission of the Detroit SHRM Executive Committee. January 2014.


[1] Since the 2008 amendment, the ADA has included within the definition of “disabled” being subjected to an action “because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.”