Benefits and Compensation, Diversity & Inclusion, HR Management & Compliance

Employers Must Conduct Individualized Assessment Under ADA

A recent decision from the Southern District of Ohio highlights the importance of conducting an individualized assessment before taking adverse action against an individual who takes opioids.

Facts

Raymond Hartmann interviewed with William Russell, a production manager at Graham Packaging Company, L.P., to discuss an available production specialist position. The position required operating a forklift and other heavy machinery.

During the interview, Hartmann filled out a job application and provided Russell a letter from his doctor stating he was prescribed opioids to treat a pinched nerve and there were no concerns regarding his ability to perform his duties while taking the medications.

A few days later, Graham offered Hartmann a job, conditioned on the completion of a physical and drug test. He accepted the offer and completed the physical and drug test at a nearby hospital. Although the results of the drug test were negative, the words “safety sensitive” were written on the side of the report. When a company representative reached out to the hospital to learn more, she was told that the results were marked as such because of his opioid medications.

After internal discussions about Hartmann’s test results, the company informed him it needed a new letter from his doctor, who issued two new letters. One pertained to his Adderall prescription and the other to his narcotics regimen. The substance of the narcotics letter mirrored the letter he had previously provided.

Ultimately, Graham told Hartmann it couldn’t hire him because he was a “safety hazard.” He sued the company, asserting claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Ohio’s state-law counterpart. He claimed Graham discriminated against him based on concerns that the side effects of his opioid medications would create a workplace safety hazard. The parties both requested summary judgment (dismissal without a trial).

Court’s Decision

Because Hartmann alleged his medications didn’t affect his ability to perform the job, the court was required to answer two questions:

  • Did Graham regard him as disabled based on the side effects of his opioid regimen?
  • Has he shown he could perform the job’s functions without an accommodation?

With respect to the first question, the court concluded Graham regarded Hartmann as disabled. It reasoned the company believed the side effects of his medical treatment rendered him unable to safely operate a forklift, as the position would require. In other words, it took into account his perceived disabilities arising from his opioid regimen when it decided not to hire him.

Second, the court held there was a genuine issue of fact about whether Hartmann was “otherwise qualified” for the position. He presented evidence he was capable of performing the position’s job duties. Notably, he operated forklifts and machinery at a previous employer while taking the same medications. Graham argued, however, he wasn’t qualified because his opioid regimen rendered him a safety risk to others.

Graham raised concerns that opioids might affect Hartmann’s ability to operate heavy machinery, which was an essential function of the job. To persuade the court, it needed to show that it conducted an individualized inquiry to determine whether his opioid use had a debilitating effect on his ability to perform the job.

The court held there was a genuine issue of fact about whether the company conducted the individualized inquiry. The court reasoned the company’s communications with the hospital didn’t satisfy the individualized inquiry requirement because the hospital declined to comment on whether Hartmann could perform the job functions. Moreover, the company’s requests for additional letters from his doctor didn’t satisfy the requirement because the letters were in favor of hiring him.

Because it was unclear whether Graham completed the individualized inquiry, the court denied both Hartmann’s and Graham’s summary judgment requests. As a result, the case will be going to trial.

Although Graham’s summary judgment request could have succeeded if it had established Hartmann didn’t participate in the individualized inquiry in good faith, there was a genuine issue of fact on this topic. Because the record didn’t reveal which party caused the breakdown in communication, the court denied the company’s request for summary judgment. Hartmann v. Graham Packaging Co., L.P., No. 1:19-cv-488, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12888 (S.D. Ohio, Jan. 25, 2022).

Takeaways

This is an important case for all employers. The court’s holding makes clear that conducting an individualized assessment is critical before refusing to hire or otherwise taking adverse action against an individual who takes opioids.

Arslan S. Sheikh is an attorney with Porter Wright in Columbus, Ohio. He can be reached at 614-227-1996 or asheikh@porterwright.com.