Employer should have looked at bigger picture before terminating technician
Case name: Jones v. Nissan North America, Inc., No. 3:07-0645 (M.D. Tenn. 09/12/08).
What it means: When deciding whether and how to return an employee who is disabled from a workers' compensation injury to work, an employer must carefully consider and apply all the information available to it and obtain additional information, if necessary. Determining that an employee is not qualified or is unable to be accommodated by relying on one source of guidance -- when there is equally persuasive opposing evidence -- can lead to a charge of disability discrimination.
Summary: An auto assembly production technician developed work-related bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome in his right elbow. Although his treating physician released him to work without any restrictions, the chancellor who heard his workers' compensation case issued a decision listing permanent restrictions on using power tools and lifting. The employer interpreted the decision strictly and discharged the technician, explaining that there were no jobs at the plant he could perform. He sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and state law. The District Court denied summary judgment to both parties. The court determined there were questions of fact regarding whether the employer correctly interpreted the chancellor's decision, and whether it was acting with "an honest belief" that the technician was no longer qualified to work at the plant.
The evidence raising these questions included the fact that the technician's treating doctor and medical expert indicated that he had no restrictions, and the fact that the employer's doctor did not examine the technician, speak with his doctor, or even review the chancellor's ruling before imposing the restrictions.
The court rejected the employer's attempt to invoke judicial estoppel. Because the technician did not claim during the workers' compensation proceeding that he was unable to perform his job, he was not estopped from stating otherwise after the proceeding. Also, after he returned to work but before the workers' compensation hearing occurred, he was capably doing his job at the plant.
December 16, 2008
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