Sounds like a bad joke: Hear the one about the bridge worker who had a fear of heights? But employers won’t laugh at the punchline.
A federal appeals court recently found in favor of the altitude-challenged employee, who claimed he’d been discriminated against because of his disability.
Yeah, we know. How could anybody who’s afraid of heights even land a job working on bridges — let alone convince a judge he’d been discriminated against because of his phobia?
As in virtually all employment cases, it’s not that simple.
Can’t ‘walk a bridge beam’
A sketch of the complicated case:
Darrell Miller worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation as a “highway maintainer” on a bridge crew. He was responsible for a number of tasks, including operating and repairing equipment, repairing abutments and guardrails, cutting grass — all work performed on the ground.
But some of the bridge work, of course, required working above the ground or water. And that’s where Miller ran into difficulty.
He informed his supervisor, Steve Maurizio, of his fear of heights and that there were a few tasks he simply wouldn’t be able to do — like work unsecured, “walking a bridge beam.”
Miller worked for IDOT for five years without running into a problem. The other members of his team performed the tasks he was unable to handle.
Indeed, the entire team seemed to cooperate to cover each other’s limitations. Maurizio was unable to weld, so other members did the welding work. Another team member suffered from allergies, so he was excused from spray painting and mowing.
All apparently went well until the day Miller’s crew was changing light bulbs on a Mississippi River bridge. Miller and another team member were told to climb over the edge of the bridge to change the navigation lights directly above the river.
Miller tried to walk out on a beam in order to change the bulb, but suffered a panic attack. He was taken to a hospital. Subsequently, IDOT ordered him to undergo a fitness-for-duty examination.
The IDOT physician diagnosed Miller with acrophobia and concluded he was unfit to work as a highway maintainer.
A convoluted passage through the bureaucracy ensued: Miller challenged the “unfit” designation; two other doctors found Miller could perform his job functions with the informal accommodations his team had afforded him in the past.
IDOT refused Miller’s request for accommodation. But six months later, it ordered him back to work. On his first day back, he made an offhand comment about “knocking the teeth out” of a personnel manager who was involved in denying his accommodation request. Miller was told to go home.
IDOT then fired him for making a threat of violence against another employee and for “disruptive behavior”; after an arbitration hearing, Miller was found to have engaged in “conduct unbecoming” but was returned to work, without back pay or benefits.
Miller sued, claiming IDOT discriminated against him by denying his accommodation request and then retaliated against him for making the request in the first place.
A federal district court dismissed Miller’s case, saying that the employees requested accommodation — rearranging tasks among members of a bridge crew — was unreasonable. Plus, the court said, Miller couldn’t prove his firing came in retaliation for his request for accommodation.
An appeals court disagreed, saying the case should be remanded for trial.
First, the court said, a jury could well find that “Miller was requesting a reasonable accommodation: after all, he was asking only that he be allowed to work as he had worked successfully for several years.”
On the retaliation claim, the appeals court said that it was up to a jury to decide if Miller’s statement about “knocking the teeth out” of the personnel manager was a bona fide threat, or if IDOT used the incident “to justify the dismissal of an annoying employee who asserted his rights under ADA.”
Fixing what ain’t broke
On the surface, it’d seem absurd that somebody who suffers from acrophobia would be able to claim he was able to fulfill his duties as a bridge worker — and then ask for an ADA accommodation.
But there are some lessons here for employers. First, Miller had apparently been doing just fine on the job — for several years — because his team was able to cover the jobs he wasn’t capable of performing.
Indeed, the team made that same type of adjustment for several of its members. It appears the group was flexible enough to make the most of its peoples’ strengths and minimize the effect of their weaknesses.
Which sounds to us like the ideal way to maximize team performance.
The time frame is significant here, as well. Kinda tough to claim an accommodation is unreasonable when you’ve been providing it for several years.
No question, companies need strict policies on specific job requirements. But in this case, it appears that the employer felt its policies were more important than getting the actual work done.
Seems kinda backward to us.
The case is Miller v. Illinois Dept. of Transportation. For a look at the full decision, go here.
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