A new case from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals makes clear once again the importance in disability cases of an individual assessment of the employee’s ability to perform the job and of having a job description, which includes the essential functions and the physical requirements of the job.

In Rodriguez vs. ConAgra Grocery Products Company, Rodriguez was a temporary laborer and then was recommended for a permanent position. ConAgra made a provisional offer of employment for a permanent position contingent on Rodriguez passing a physical examination. ConAgra sent Rodriguez for a physical but provided the doctor with no job description or physical requirement information regarding the job. The doctor, in fact, knew nothing of the qualifications necessary for the position. The doctor discovered Rodriquez had diabetes. When questioned about the condition and whether he was being treated for the condition, Rodriguez could not recall the name of the medication he was taking and also could not recall the name of his physician. The doctor submitted a report to ConAgra saying Rodriguez “was not medically qualified” for the position because of “uncontrolled diabetes.” Rodriguez disputed the assessment and informed the doctor he had a complete physical two months before; he was taking pills for his diabetes; and he had no problems with his diabetes. The doctor later testified that he observed “no ill-effects attributable to Rodriguez’s diabetes.” On the basis of the doctor’s opinion, ConAgra denied employment to Rodriguez.

The trial court granted ConAgra’s Motion for Summary Judgment and dismissed Rodriguez’s case finding there was no Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) discrimination because the employment decision was based on the belief that his diabetes was uncontrolled and not on the disability. The 5th Circuit did not agree and reversed the dismissal of the suit. The 5th Circuit found that Rodriguez presented sufficient evidence to show that he was “regarded as” disabled and that ConAgra withdrew its offer of employment because of his “perceived disability.”

Under the ADA, a plaintiff is “regarded as” disabled if he/she: “(1) has an impairment which is not substantially limiting but which the employer perceives as…substantially limiting…; (2) has an impairment which is substantially limiting only because of the attitudes of others towards such an impairment; or (3) has no impairment at all but is regarded by the employer as having a substantially limiting impairment.” Here Rodriguez’s diabetes did not substantially limit him in a major life activity, but ConAgra “perceived” his diabetes to be substantially limiting. In essence, the court says that in “regarded as” disability cases “there is nothing for the plaintiff to control or medicate.”

The court stressed that ConAgra failed to follow the ADA’s mandate that an employer measure “in an individualized manner” the impact of an employee’s disability on his ability to work. In other words, no blanket rule may be applied. Each individual case must be assessed on the individual facts. Here ConAgra had no way of knowing whether Rodriguez’s “presumed failure to control his diabetes would actually prevent him from performing the requirements of the position.” Rodriguez actually had performed the job as a temporary employee, and there was no information from which the doctor could assess or conclude that Rodriguez’s condition would make him unsuitable for the position on a permanent basis. The job offer was withdrawn based on a blanket rule that ConAgra would not hire any diabetic who its physicians characterized as uncontrolled. There had been no particular assessment of this individual and his ability or inability to perform the essential functions of the job. The fact that the doctor did not have a job description which described the essential functions of the job made clear to the court that there was no “individualized assessment” as mandated by the ADA.

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