Can a bridge worker with a fear of heights have a viable ADA claim?

June 24, 2011
By Eric B. Meyer on June 24, 2011 6:00 AM | | Comments
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Today, I get to sleep in because The Employer Handbook has a guest blogger. It's Andrew Kim, a summer associate at Dilworth Paxson LLP:

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Some people have no problem with heights (as seen above). But Darrell Miller, a bridge worker, had acrophobia (a.k.a. the fear of heights). In fact, Mr. Miller had suffered a panic attack due to that very fear while working on the bridge crew for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). He then sought a reasonable accommodation so that he wouldn't have to work on big bridges. IDOT refused. Did it violate the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Find out after the jump . . .

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Mr. Miller had been working at IDOT for several years on a bridge crew that worked like a good sports team--each player filled a certain role. Often, however, they would chip in and help Mr. Miller. Since Mr. Miller was scared of heights (and everyone knew it), he often worked on the ground.

After his panic attack, Mr. Miller was formally diagnosed with acrophobia. Consequently, IDOT deemed Mr. Miller unfit for work. Mr. Miller requested a reasonable accommodation, but his request was denied, and IDOT ordered him to return to work. However, he was later discharged for making what IDOT interpreted as a threat. Mr. Miller subsequently sued IDOT, alleging that IDOT: (a) regarded him as disabled, (b) unlawfully refused to accommodate his acrophobia, and (c) retaliated against him for requesting an accommodation.

Mr. Miller survived summary judgment for three reasons:

  1. The Court concluded that IDOT viewed Mr. Miller as a qualified individual with a disability when IDOT precluded Darrell from any bridge crew task.
  2. The Court concluded that Mr. Miller's request for accommodation was reasonable since the bridge crew had already been working to accommodate his disability even before the examinations.
  3. The Court concluded that Mr. Miller had a retaliation claim since: (a) it was not clear if he had threatened anyone and; (b) another employee who had a violent outburst had not been terminated.

The Takeaways:

  • The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual with a disability. The ADA Amendments Act, which went into effect after Mr. Miller brought suit against IDOT, defines "disability" broadly. As a result, it is important for employers to approach cautiously when an employee is diagnosed with a condition that may qualify as a disability. Additionally, if, as IDOT did here, it subjectively views an employee as disabled, then the employee is disabled for purposes of the Act.
  • The ADA requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for a qualified individual with a disability to perform essential functions. Reasonable accommodations encompass a broad range of considerations. Therefore, it is important for employers to consider a variety of job modifications as well as other reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals. (Editor's Note: There is a circuit split on whether employers must afford a reasonable accommodation to an individual it "regards as" disabled. Here, in the Third Circuit, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee whom it "regards as" disabled under the ADA.)

The case is Miller v. IDOT.

For more on dealing with employee requests for reasonable accommodations, check out this earlier post.


Image Credit: Charles C. Ebbett