ADA & Disabilities, Benefits

Iowa Court Decision Blurs Definition of Disability in Workers’ Comp Cases

A recent decision from the Iowa Court of Appeals should cause Iowa employers to hit pause on routine decisions relating to workers’ compensation claimants. The decision, Vetter v. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, effectively dismantled the definition of “disability” for disability discrimination claims.disability

Possible Two Bites at the Apple

In the case, an employee was terminated because the employer didn’t believe it could reasonably accommodate his permanent workers’ compensation restrictions. The jury returned a verdict in excess of $600,000, finding illegal disability discrimination. The Iowa Court of Appeals agreed with the jury and concluded that the termination, premised on permanent workers’ comp restrictions, was direct evidence of discrimination for purposes of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. In doing so, the court equated permanent work restrictions with a disability.

The employer has asked the Iowa Supreme Court to reverse this decision. The Iowa Supreme Court isn’t required to examine the decision, but it may do so if it so chooses. Unless modified by the Iowa Supreme Court, this case establishes that employers are making decisions based on so-called disabilities when they address workers’ comp claims.

Arguably, it allows employees two bites at the apple—they can recover in the workers’ comp system and in district court, undermining the “exclusive remedy” provisions under which the workers’ comp system is premised. Further, it effectively removes the requirement that employees prove they are disabled before they can take advantage of disability laws.

What Happened in the Case

To be sure, this case demonstrates that the employer could have done things better. For example, the employer hired consultants to assess whether the employee could perform the essential functions of his job, but it provided an incorrect job description. The employer terminated the employee because it believed the consultants’ accommodation recommendations (premised on the incorrect job description) were unreasonable. Further, the employer never consulted with the employee about his own physical abilities.

However, the legal question isn’t whether the employer made wise choices; the legal question is whether the employee was subjected to illegal discrimination based on his disability. Necessarily, someone who files a disability claim must either have a disability or be regarded as disabled. This is a prerequisite to disability discrimination. A disability is defined as a substantial limitation on a major life activity. Major life activities include things such as walking, caring for oneself, or working.

In deciding the employee met the definition of “disabled,” the Iowa Court of Appeals focused solely on permanent work restrictions from a workers’ comp injury and the employee’s condition at the time of his injury—not his condition when the termination decision was made.

Some background is helpful given that disability claims are factual in nature. In the Vetter case, the employee had a back injury that was treated through workers’ comp. At the time of trial, the employee was 64 years old and had 36 years of tenure with the employer. The evidence suggested the employee was a good worker who took pride in his work and was passionate about his job.

The timeline is as follows:

  • July 2011—initial back injury;
  • November 2011—back surgery;
  • January 2012—returned to work with light-duty restrictions, gradually returned to full duty;
  • September 2012—underwent a functional capacity exam (FCE), which identified a variety of permanent lifting and other physical restrictions, as a part of the workers’ comp claim;
  • January 2013—workers’ comp asked if the employer could accommodate the FCE restrictions; and
  • May 2013—the employer terminated the employee, stating the restrictions were unduly burdensome and couldn’t be reasonably accommodated.

In May 2013, the back injury was apparently fully healed. However, as is extremely common, there were lingering effects that resulted in permanent work restrictions.

Was Employee Actually Disabled?

Disability laws aren’t general protections for affected people; rather, the laws are intended to eradicate impermissible discrimination. In this case, the evidence suggested the employee wasn’t disabled. Instead, it showed he was extremely active both at work and in his personal life. The evidence also showed a common issue: The employee suffered a work-related acute injury, he was provided medical treatment, surgery, and postsurgery accommodations (i.e., light duty), and he recovered. In fact, he testified that he was “very pleased” with the outcome of his surgery provided by the workers’ comp insurer.

The employee testified that the FCE restrictions weren’t of any value or meaning to him in his job because he was able to fully perform and had been performing his job duties for over a year when the FCE was decided. The employee argued to the jury that they could conclude he was “disabled” within the meaning of the law without considering whether his surgery, physical therapy, and injections helped him. The jury was told to consider the employee’s condition in 2011 when things were at their worst.

This argument is contrary to established law that recognizes acute injuries happen, oftentimes the injury is surgically resolved, and the person emerges from treatment without significant restrictions. The jury shouldn’t have examined the employee’s condition at its worst. Rather, it should have looked at his condition when the employer made its decision to terminate him. By equating a back injury to a disability, the court failed to distinguish between injuries, work restrictions, and disabilities.

Bottom Line

Workers with restrictions aren’t disabled by virtue of their work restrictions—permanent or temporary. As explained by the dissenting judge, “Work restrictions might evidence a limitation caused by a physical impairment, it is not the case that work restrictions establish a disability as a matter of law.”

In the same way that employers can’t make assumptions about an employee’s ability to perform the job (i.e., use the interactive process), the courts can’t simply transform someone who is fully able to do his job into a disabled person by focusing on his condition before medical intervention or on restrictions that don’t apply to the employee’s ability to perform his job.

Accordingly, employers that conclude they can’t accommodate an employee’s restrictions should, at a minimum, recognize they are arguably making decisions based on the employee’s disability, thereby implicating civil rights laws. This case also confirms well-established truisms in the employment world: Include the employee in the discussion about accommodations—it is an interactive process—and ensure your job descriptions are accurate.

Michele L. (Warnock) Brott, an editor of Iowa Employment Law Letter, can be reached at michelebrott@davisbrownlaw.com or 515-288-2500.