Use of Opioid Medications By Applicant For Forklift Job Was Not Sufficient to Deny Employment Without Individualized Assessment
A federal court in Ohio denied summary judgment to both parties where an employer refused to hire an applicant who used opioid medication as a forklift driver. The court held that there were disputed issues of fact as to whether the parties participated in the interactive process in good faith and whether the applicant’s opioid use rendered him unsafe to perform the job. Hartmann v. Graham Packaging, L.P., No. 1:19-cv-488 (S.D. Ohio January 25, 2022).
Hartmann applied for a job as a forklift driver. He used prescription opioids for pain relief, along with several other medications, which he disclosed during his initial interview. The employer asked him to provide a doctor’s note that the use of his medications would not create a safety concern. The applicant’s doctor provided such a note.
The applicant subsequently passed the pre-employment drug test, but the test result was marked “safety-sensitive.” The applicant was asked to provide another doctor’s note, which he did. The second doctor’s note was substantially similar to the first one. The parties disagreed as to what the second note was supposed to address. The employer discussed the matter further with the applicant and ultimately did not hire him because his medications were a “safety hazard.”
The applicant asserted claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Ohio state law. Both parties moved for summary judgment.
The applicant argued that he was “regarded as” disabled by the employer. The employer argued that it was unaware of the applicant’s disability; rather, it was only aware of the medications he used. However, the court stated that the negative side effects of medication were enough to constitute an impairment for purposes of the ADA. It was undisputed that the employer did not hire the applicant due to its belief that the side effects of the applicant’s medication rendered him unable to operate a forklift safely. That sufficed to show that the applicant was disabled for purposes of a “regarded as” claim.
However, the court found that there was an issue of fact as to whether the applicant was “otherwise qualified” to perform the essential functions of the job. Although the applicant claimed that he could perform all of the essential job functions, the employer argued that his opioid regimen rendered him a risk to the “health and safety” of others. But the court stated that it was not clear whether the employer conducted an “individualized inquiry” concerning the applicant’s ability to perform the job duties safely. While the employer had internal discussions regarding the applicant’s medications and doctor’s notes, the details of those discussions were vague. Moreover, it was unclear whether the employer asked for a more specific doctor’s note which the applicant failed to provide, or, whether the employer failed to specify exactly what it needed the applicant to provide in terms of medical documentation. As a result of the disputed issues of fact, the Court denied summary judgment.
This case highlights the importance of engaging in the interactive process in good faith, on an individualized case-by-case basis, when addressing the use of prescription medications by applicants and employees in safety-sensitive jobs.