Executive Summary: A federal trial court in Minnesota recently granted summary judgment in favor of Northwest Airlines on an employee's discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), holding that the airline did not regard the employee as disabled. See Sanchez v. Northwest Airlines (May 1, 2012). The court held that the fact that Northwest required the employee to undergo an accommodation assessment when he switched bases did not establish that the airline regarded him as disabled.
Sanchez was employed by Northwest as an equipment service employee (ESE). During his employment, Sanchez injured his knee and ultimately had a knee replacement. Subsequently, Sanchez submitted a statement from his physician identifying his physical restrictions, which included being unable to squat, crawl, climb ladders, run, lift more than 75 pounds or perform "fine hand" work. Sanchez was able to continue to work in the ESE position because Northwest accommodated him by excusing him from certain duties such as loading and unloading baggage inside the bins of narrow-body aircraft.
In 2007, Sanchez was awarded the Lead ESE position in the Honolulu Airport; however, Northwest later removed him from this position because he could not perform one of the essential functions of the position – loading and unloading baggage from narrow-body aircraft. Sanchez then obtained a revised letter from his doctor stating that his only work restrictions were running and lifting over 75 pounds. This revised letter was significantly different from the letter he previously submitted. Although Northwest did not reinstate Sanchez to the Lead ESE position, it informed him that he could bid on the next open position and that it would consider the new restrictions at that time. Sanchez filed a grievance over the airline's refusal to reinstate him to the Lead ESE position and subsequently filed suit in federal court, claiming the denial violated the ADA. While his lawsuit was pending, Sanchez bid on and received the Lead ESE position in Honolulu.
The ADA prohibits employers from taking an adverse employment action against an employee because of disability. To establish a claim under the ADA, a plaintiff is required to show that (1) he has a disability within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the position sought, with or without reasonable accommodation, and (3) he was denied this position because of his or her disability. If the plaintiff makes this showing, the employer is required to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action. If the employer does so, the plaintiff must show that the employer's proffered reason for the employment action was pretextual.
Sanchez was not Disabled
The court held that Northwest was entitled to summary judgment because Sanchez could not show he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA. The court rejected Sanchez' argument that Northwest regarded him as disabled, which is one of the ways a plaintiff can establish he or she is entitled to protection under the ADA.
An individual is regarded as disabled if the employer mistakenly believes that he has an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or mistakenly believes that an actual, non-limiting impairment substantially limits the employee's ability to perform one or more major life activities. Sanchez claimed Northwest mistakenly believed that his knee injury substantially limited him in the major life activities of performing manual tasks and working.
Sanchez argued that a reasonable jury could find that Northwest believed his earlier restrictions were permanent. However, Sanchez presented no evidence that those perceived restrictions would have severely restricted his ability to perform tasks of central importance to daily life. The court noted that Sanchez testified that he was not impaired in his daily life. Further the court held that there was no evidence that Northwest regarded Sanchez's restrictions as limiting his ability to care for himself or others, do household chores, or perform other types of manual tasks that are centrally important to daily life.
Additionally, Sanchez presented no evidence that a person with the restrictions he claimed he was regarded as having would be unable to perform a broad class of jobs. The court noted that Sanchez did not identify a single job, other than the Lead ESE position, that these restrictions precluded him from holding or that Northwest believed he was precluded from holding.
The court also held that the fact that Northwest required Sanchez to undergo an accommodation assessment when he switched bases between Honolulu and Minneapolis and granted him various accommodations did not establish that Northwest regarded him as unable to perform a broad class of jobs. "There is simply no evidence that Northwest regarded Sanchez as being unable to perform a broad class of jobs – or, for that matter, any job other than Lead ESE."
Accordingly, because no reasonable jury could find that Sanchez was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, the court granted Northwest's motion for summary judgment.
The case arose before the effective date of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA); thus, the court applied the pre-ADAAA version of the ADA and applicable pre-ADAAA case law.
 An employee is disabled for purposes of the ADA if: (1) he is actually disabled – that is, he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; (2) he has a record of such an impairment; or (3) he is regarded as having such an impairment.