Larkin Hoffman Achieves Significant Win for Employers in Disability Case

01/16/2018

The Minnesota Court of Appeals held today that under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), an employer does not have a duty to engage in the interactive process with a disabled employee to determine if an appropriate reasonable accommodation is necessary [McBee v. Team Industries, Inc.]. Attorneys Christopher J. Harristhal and John A. Kvinge represented the client through the appeal.

While the employer insisted it had engaged in the interactive process, the plaintiff/employee disputed that such an interaction took place and argued that a failure to discuss possible accommodations was a violation of the MHRA. The Court of Appeals disagreed and, after distinguishing federal regulations and court cases decided under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), noted that no such requirement appears anywhere in the MHRA, any state administrative rules or in any published Minnesota state case law. As a result, the court held, there is no requirement for such an interactive process under the MHRA.

The plaintiff had argued that her 10-pound lifting restriction, a result of problems with her vertebrae and bulged disc, did not render her unqualified for the job of machine operator. The court upheld the dismissal of her failure to accommodate and discrimination claims on the grounds that some of the essential duties of the position involved lifting more than 10 pounds, even if she herself had not lifted 10 pounds or more. Because lifting more than 10 pounds was an essential function of the position when performed by other personnel and according to the job description, and because her own doctor restricted her from engaging in such activity, her discrimination claims were dismissed with a finding that she was not qualified for the job. 

Dismissal of Claims
The dismissal of the failure to accommodate claim was similarly upheld on the grounds that the plaintiff could not lift 10 pounds and the employer was not legally required to reallocate or eliminate the essential functions of the job. Relying on the “serious threat of harm defense,” the court concluded that the company had relied on competent medical advice from the plaintiff’s doctor. The advice used was relayed by the employee, and the court agreed that an employer “should be allowed to err on the side of safety” in determining whether an employee posed a risk of undue harm to herself or others – a statutory defense to any failure to accommodate claim. 

The court also upheld the dismissal of the reprisal claim asserted under the MHRA. The plaintiff alleged that she was discharged in retaliation for requesting an accommodation. The court found, however, that allowing her to pursue the retaliation claim, when she could not safely perform the job, would abrogate the “serious threat of harm defense.”

Finally, the dismissal of the workers compensation retaliation claim was upheld. The plaintiff had never filed for workers compensation, but argued that the employer was worried about her filing a claim in the future because of her lifting restriction. Rejecting this argument, the court held that the workers compensation anti-retaliation law “covers the future filing for benefits, it does not cover future injuries.” 

Employers are well advised to always engage in the interactive process with a disabled employee, keeping in mind that the results under the ADA and federal law could be different from those here. However, employers should be encouraged by this decision upholding the rights of the employer to use common sense in deciding whether to allow an employee, who may pose a safety risk, to return to the job.