Employer’s Honest Belief That Employee Could Not Perform Job Due to Use of Opioid Medications Did Not Constitute Disability Discrimination
An employer’s decision to bypass an employee for a position based on the employee’s use of opioids was not enough to prove the employee’s disability discrimination claim, according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Ferrari v. Ford Motor Company, Case No. 15-1479 (6th Cir. June 23, 2016). The Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer on the employee’s disability discrimination claims, as well as his Family and Medical Leave Act retaliation claim.
Ford hired Gianni-Paolo Ferrari in 1996. A few years later, Ferrari sustained a workplace injury. Ford accommodated his “permanent” restrictions for nine years. Ferrari’s doctor then suddenly removed his restrictions. Ford’s doctor, however, maintained the restrictions, because earlier records showed that Ferrari was addicted to the opioids he took to manage his pain. Ford’s doctor was unwilling to remove the restrictions without more information from Ferrari’s doctor.
Ferrari then applied for an apprenticeship. In advance of a pre-apprenticeship physical, Ferrari provided clearances from two doctors. One doctor indicated that Ferrari was still taking opioids; the other did not address the issue. This was contrary to Ferrari’s representation that he had been weaning himself off of opioids for three months. Ford then received a doctor’s note stating Ferrari’s opioid use did not impact his ability to perform the apprenticeship duties.
Ford and Ferrari agreed he would get an independent medical examination. The IME noted that Ferrari’s claim to be off opioids for three months was inconsistent with his medical records. The examiner concluded that if Ferrari was taking opioids, he would not allow Ferrari to resume unrestricted employment. Ford’s doctor removed some restrictions, but maintained ladder-climbing and overhead-work restrictions.
The apprenticeship program decision-makers reviewed the restrictions, and bypassed Ferrari from participating in the program. However, Ford told Ferrari that he would be eligible once he weaned off opioids. Ford also allowed him to work in a different position. Ferrari filed suit based on this decision.
Ferrari claimed direct evidence of discrimination, because Ford “regarded him” as disabled based on his opioid use. To succeed on this claim, Ferrari had to show that Ford believed his opioid use limited his ability to perform a major life activity. He alleged Ford regarded him as limited in his ability to perform the major life function of “working.” To meet this burden, Ferrari had to prove that Ford believed he was unable to perform an entire class of jobs. The Court reasoned that the inability to perform a single, particular job is not a “major life activity.” Ford’s belief that Ferrari could not climb a ladder or work at heights was not enough to show Ford regarded Ferrari as disabled.
Ferrari also tried to establish a disability discrimination case using circumstantial evidence. The Court concluded the evidence showed that the apprenticeship decision-makers “honestly believed” that Ferrari had medically-based restrictions, and that Ford’s doctor honestly believed Ferrari was using opioids which could adversely impact his performance. Therefore, Ferrari could not establish pretext and his claim was dismissed.