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April 1 — A juvenile detention officer in Arkansas whose fibromyalgia and spine disease left her unable to lift more than 25 pounds can't prove she was fired based on her disability or because she took protected medical leave, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled.
The April 1 decision highlights that the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't require employers to disregard restrictions imposed by a worker's treating physician while the worker tries to get another doctor to lift the restrictions.
It also illustrates that ADA accommodation requests that are unreasonable aren't considered to be protected activity for purposes of anti-retaliation law.
Here, the Eighth Circuit agreed with Pulaski County, Ark., that the ability to lift and carry up to 40 pounds was an essential function of Javonda Scruggs's job that she was no longer able to perform. As a result, Scruggs wasn't a “qualified individual with a disability” for purposes of federal anti-discrimination law and couldn't succeed with her disability bias claims, the court said.
Scruggs conceded that the job sometimes required her to lift juvenile detainees—all of whom weigh more than 40 pounds—and to restrain them to keep them from hurting themselves or other detainees, Judge Jane Kelly noted.
Moreover, the county's judgment that being able to lift at least 40 pounds is an essential job function for detention officers was “highly probative,” the court said. The written job description also listed the ability to lift and carry up to 40 pounds as a job requirement, and all other staff members testified that they were able to do so, the court added.
The court held that Scruggs's request for more time to get a different doctor to remove her lifting restriction wasn't reasonable for purposes of the ADA or the similarly interpreted federal Rehabilitation Act.
“It isn't reasonable to expect an employer to disregard an employee's treating physician's” imposition of work restrictions in favor of a different doctor's opinion, Kelly wrote.
The court said Scruggs had argued that she requested and should have been granted as an ADA accommodation an extra week of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to obtain the new doctor's FMLA certification after she had exhausted her available leave under that law.
Scruggs also sued for retaliation under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, the FMLA and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, but those claims likewise were properly dismissed on summary judgment, the Eighth Circuit affirmed. To prove retaliation under any of those statutes, Scruggs was required to identify a protected activity in which she was engaged that was linked to an adverse action the county took against her, the court said.
She pointed to the county's decision to convert to continuous leave the intermittent leave she had been taking under the FMLA for her fibromyalgia and degenerative disc and cervical disease since 2008. The county made that decision in 2013 after her treating physician imposed the 25-pound lifting restriction.
But that restriction rendered her unable to perform an essential job function, the court said. As a result, “the county didn't violate the FMLA by placing her on consecutive rather than intermittent leave,” it said.
Scruggs also pointed to the denial of her request for additional leave to obtain a revised FMLA certification, which she argued was linked to her termination.
However, because her request for additional leave wasn't reasonable, it wasn't a protected activity under any of the federal and state disability bias laws she sued under, Kelly said.
Judges Diana E. Murphy and Duane Benton joined the opinion.
Sutter & Gillham represented Scruggs. Fuqua & Campbell represented the county.
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Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Javonda_Scruggs_Plaintiff__Appellant_v_Pulaski_County_Arkansas_De.
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