Putting Back Problems in Perspective
Seventh Circuit Finds
Back Condition no ADA Condition
Smart managers know that in recent years the ADA has been cut down to size by the U.S. Supreme Court in several decisions, but many may overlook the fact that it was up to the federal court of appeals here in Chicago to apply a reality test to the ADA where much of the action is: lower back problems. A recent case, Squibb v. Memorial Medical Center (August 2007), demonstrates that the ADA much of the time does not apply to back conditions, even if attributable to workers comp-related injuries. This is an important legal trend.
Mary Squibb’s back problems at work may sound familiar to you.
While lifting patients as a nurse assistant during the 1990s she sustained three separate back injuries. After her first injury she had temporary restrictions, then corrective surgery, and was then released to regular duty. After the third injury she had more corrective surgery, followed by lifting restrictions ordered by her doctor. She was released to “light duty” in 2001 with a ten pound lifting limit and a maximum of four work hours a day.
Although she transitioned into full time, Squibb tired of working in light duty work (clerical) and talked her doctor into phasing her into nursing work, but he later imposed a permanent fifty pound lifting restriction. Her employer, Memorial Medical Center, had assigned her to a temporary light-duty RN job as she moved off of clerical work but when her doctor advised the hospital of her permanent lifting restriction, Memorial told her to look for another position that would be a better fit for her.
In January 2003 Memorial had Squibb evaluated by a medical examiner to determine what other position she could perform. The evaluation showed that she could kneel, crouch, stand or sit continuously, that she could twist frequently, and that she could bend occasionally. Her limit for continuous lifting or carrying was five to ten pounds. The functional capacity evaluation concluded that her abilities did not match the physical demands of her nursing job.
She was then reassigned to the position of patient placement coordinator, and, after running into absenteeism problems, was placed on administrative leave. Ultimately Squibb went to court with a ten-count complaint, accusing Memorial of various ADA violations.
The Seventh Circuit (Judge Ripple, for the court) addressed this issue: Did Squibb have an impairment that substantially limited the major life activity of working? The court iterated its doubts that many back problems, and the lifting limitations they cause, were ADA disabilities. The court noted that an inability to lift where the lifting restriction was a maximum of ten pounds fell outside the ADA. “The number of Americans restricted by back problems to light work is legion. They are not disabled,” the court noted, citing Mays v. Principi, 301 F3d 866, 869-870 (7th Cir. 2002). Hence Squibb’s inability to work in her nursing job did not show that she was substantially limited in the major life activity of working.
Squibb took the fall-back position that the limitation from her back condition foreclosed her working in various nursing positions, i.e., a “class of jobs,” but the court rejected this argument. “Class of jobs” cannot be defined narrowly, and Squibb claimed that her lifting limitations shut her out of all nursing jobs. The court found that there were various nursing positions at the hospital (and presumably elsewhere in her geographical area) that she could fill.
Squibb shifted her argument to other major life activities, claiming unsuccessfully that her back problems interfered with the activities of sleeping and caring for herself. Mere interference with sleep is insufficient; substantial evidence must be in the record to prove that the limitation on sleep is “prolonged, severe, and long-term.” An example would be specific evidence (medical or otherwise) showing daytime activities were significantly affected. Squibb provided none. As for caring for self, the court noted that Squibb claimed limitations on the ability to button or zip clothing, brush the back of her hair, cook, and clean her home. Not enough, the court responded, because she had admitted she could drive, bathe, brush her teeth, and otherwise dress herself.
Finally, the court also rejected her claim that her inability to sit for more than half an hour constituted a limitation on a major life activity, and the court rejected her claim that her inability to have sexual relations for two years because of her back condition was such a limitation. As to the latter, no employer could be legally expected to accommodate this limitation in the workplace. In other words, a limitation on a major life activity is irrelevant if outside the scope of workplace accommodation. This is a concept requiring more attention.
The court affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on these claims, along with claims of retaliation and that Memorial “regarded” Squibb as disabled.