A warehouse worker who, after an injury, could no longer use a manual pallet jack to lift and move material within the warehouse was not entitled to use an electric forklift in place of the manual pallet as a reasonable accommodation under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
The worker failed to show that allowing him to use the forklift would permit him to perform the essential job functions because electric forklifts were too dangerous to other employees when used in certain areas of the warehouse and also could not move within the tight spaces within the facility. Therefore, the employee did not meet his burden of showing that the accommodation he had requested was possible, the court said.
The employee worked as a material and inventory specialist at the employer’s warehouse in Minnetonka, Minn. His job duties included maintaining, processing and shipping medical-device components. The position required rigorous physical activity. According to the job description, the workers were expected to stand or walk continuously, push or pull 11 to 50 pounds frequently, and often lift or carry up to 20 pounds.
During a typical shift, the workers spent most of their time using manual pallet jacks and electric forklifts to move pallets and materials. Manual pallet jacks lift pallets several inches off the ground and are moved manually by being pushed or pulled. Electric forklifts lift pallets onto higher shelves and are battery-operated. The material and inventory specialists also spent some time handling and counting small items in the “clean room.”
While pulling a manual pallet jack on Aug. 19, 2016, the employee experienced a tingle running down his right leg. He immediately stopped using the jack and reported the injury to his team leader. He saw a doctor the next day, who signed a note stating that the employee was not to lift, push or pull more than 25 pounds.
In response, the employer temporarily assigned the employee to work in the clean room. On Sept. 6, 2016, the employee’s doctor provided the company with amended work restrictions that precluded the employee from lifting more than 15 pounds and from standing for more than one hour. These restrictions were predicted to continue until Dec. 28, 2016.
After meeting with the employee in early October 2016, the company determined that no accommodations were feasible and placed him on temporary unpaid leave until Dec. 28, the anticipated date of his return to regular duties. His leave was later extended until July 30, 2017, in response to updated work restrictions submitted by his doctor. The employee provided an updated fitness-for-duty certification to the company in August 2017, which recommended that he remain on leave until Jan. 31, 2018, and stated that he was not to use manual pallet jacks.
Unlike other certifications, this one provided no end date on which the employee’s work restrictions should be re-evaluated. Based on this certification, the employer determined that it was unclear if the employee would ever again be able to use a manual pallet jack. In light of its determination that manual pallet jack usage was an essential function of the employee’s position, the employer terminated the worker’s employment on Aug. 23, 2017.
The employee filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the employer violated the MHRA because it failed to offer him a reasonable accommodation for his disability. The court dismissed the lawsuit before trial, and the employee appealed.
To prevail on a disability-bias lawsuit under the MHRA, the employee must first show that reasonable accommodation is possible, the court said. The employee has the burden of showing that a particular accommodation rejected by the employer would have made the employee qualified to perform the essential job functions. If the employee does so, the burden of proof then shifts to the employer to show that it is unable to accommodate the employee.
The appellate court concluded that the employee had not shown that a reasonable accommodation was possible. The court noted that while the employee requested that he be permitted to use electric forklifts in place of manual pallet jacks, he did not present evidence that this accommodation would allow him to perform the essential functions of his position.
According to the company’s warehouse manager, electric forklifts could be used only in certain areas of the warehouse because they were too dangerous to other employees. He explained that electric forklifts “can get going at good speeds” and are a lot harder to stop than a manual pallet jack. Furthermore, because of their size, electric forklifts are not able to move within the tight spaces that exist in the employer’s warehouses.
The employee’s medical restrictions undisputedly precluded his use of manual pallet jacks, and he did not disprove the employer’s evidence that such use was required to perform the essential job functions, the court said. The employee did not show that using an electric forklift would be possible in certain areas of the warehouse and would not pose a safety risk to other employees, the court concluded.
The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s judgment dismissing the case before trial.
Collins v. Abbott Laboratories Inc., 8th Cir., No. 19-2622 (Aug. 25, 2020).
Professional Pointer: Employers in Minnesota should be aware that there is an important difference between federal and Minnesota disability-bias laws. The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that unlike the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the MHRA does not require employers to engage in an interactive process before deciding whether to accommodate an employee who has a disability.
Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.