The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reminded employers that, even under the more liberal standard for establishing a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), an employee who claims he or she cannot perform the major life activity of “working” has to do more than prove a substantial limitation in working in a single specific job. The employee must prove his or her impairment limits the ability to perform “a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs.”
Tinsley v. Caterpillar Financial Services, Corp. (6th Cir. March 20, 2019), was filed by a worker who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She claimed she was impaired in performing her job as a business system analyst because of her supervisor’s management style. She admitted she could remain in her position and perform her job duties, but only if the company assigned her to another manager.
Cindy Tinsley worked for Caterpillar for 19 years. From the record, it appears she didn’t run into any issues until 2015, when she reported experiencing work-related stress that was impacting her work, sleep, and overall health. Tinsley took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and, when she returned, she met with her team leader and her manager, who redistributed some of her work to coworkers and took other measures to reduce Tinsley’s stress level. When Tinsley’s work still did not improve, management gave her a “not meeting expectations” performance review and put her on a performance improvement plan. During a meeting with her manager, Tinsley complained about her coworkers bouncing stress balls on their office floors, which she called “horseplay.” She claimed that her manager’s demeanor toward her changed after she complained about her coworkers’ activities.
Tinsley took another leave of absence after which her doctor approved her to return to work without restrictions, but “strongly recommended her working in a different work environment and specifically under a different manager.” Tinsley told human resources personnel that she could continue to work in the same position as long as she reported to a different manager with whom she was more familiar. The company denied Tinsley’s request for another supervisor but granted her another leave of absence, which eventually exceeded her FMLA leave allotment. Tinsley filed a charge of discrimination with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission and continued to request reassignment to another supervisor. Caterpillar responded that it did not believe her request for transfer to another supervisor was a reasonable accommodation and directed her to return to work. She retired and claimed constructive discharge.
Sixth Circuit’s Ruling
In affirming summary judgment in favor of Caterpillar on Tinsley’s ADA claim, the court relied on the plaintiff’s representation that the only reason she could not perform her job was her manager’s specific management style. Relying on case law and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretive guide, the court ruled that a plaintiff who argues that he or she is substantially limited in the major life activity of working but does not prove he or she was substantially limited in performing “either a class of jobs or broad range of jobs in various classes” is not eligible for ADA relief.
The court reversed the district court’s order granting summary judgment to Caterpillar on her retaliation claim, which was based on her negative performance review and performance improvement plan and remanded. Because there was only a two-month lapse in time between the performance evaluation/improvement plan and her taking FMLA leave, the court remanded the case for Caterpillar to have an opportunity to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its adverse employment actions against Tinsley.