Morrissey v. Laurel Health Care Co., No. 18-1704 (6th Cir. Dec. 3, 2019)

By Paul Mollica

Some courts are still ruling on ADA cases as if the 2008 amendments never occurred. The Sixth Circuit reverses summary judgment in a case where the district court placed too high a burden on the plaintiff to prove she was disabled.

Morrissey v. Laurel Health Care Co., No. 18-1704 (6th Cir. Dec. 3, 2019): Morrissey, a licensed practical nurse (LPN), alleged that her employer – The Laurels of Coldwater, a nursing home – worked her beyond medical restrictions, specifically making her work beyond her twelve-hour shifts. “Morrissey asserted that she was disabled because she was substantially limited in her ability to walk, stand, bend, and lift repetitively due to Scoliosis, bulging disc, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and Buschkes-Ollendorf syndrome.”

Allegedly, “Coldwater management informed staff [in 2012] that Coldwater would not provide accommodations for any medical condition unless the condition stemmed from a work-related injury,” and that staff “must have any current restrictions lifted and that their jobs depended on it.”

When plaintiff returned from medical leave in 2015 (due to an unrelated condition), management allegedly informed her that it might not honor her prior twelve-hour work restriction. Indeed, her personnel file included contradictory notes about her restrictions, and there was a contested issue of fact whether they were still in effect. As an accommodation, “Morrissey purportedly asked whether she could be transferred to a unit that was not going to be converted to twelve-hour shifts, or whether Morrissey could go to ‘casual status,’ which would have allowed her to avoid being mandated to work longer than twelve hours.” Both requests were denied. Instead, plaintiff was put on twelve-hour shifts, which occasionally ran another quarter-hour longer.

In 2016, for the first time, plaintiff was required to work a 13.5-hour shift, which she protested as exceeding her medical restrictions. She then followed up with a call to the EEOC and a Coldwater operations manager. Five days later, plaintiff’s manager said she would have to work a 16-hour shift. After protesting once again, Morrissey left mid-shift and quit.

Morrissey filed an ADA action alleging failure to accommodate, constructive discharge, and retaliation. “The district court granted summary judgment on Morrissey’s claims for disability discrimination on the basis that (1) she was not disabled, and (2) she did not suffer an adverse employment action.”

The Sixth Circuit reverses on all three claims. On the reasonable-accommodation claim, the court initially notes that the district court erred in requiring plaintiff to prove an adverse employment action. (The Sixth Circuit regards ADA reasonable accommodation as a subset of discrimination, and treats it as a “direct-evidence” claim because the employer – by denying an accommodation – has acted expressly based on the employee’s disability status.)

It then addresses the main issue on appeal: whether plaintiff presented a genuine dispute that she was disabled (or, alternatively, was regarded-as or had a record of being disabled). The district court believed that there was a high standard – when considering the major life activity of working – for the plaintiff to prove significant limitation in performing a class or broad range of jobs. But the Sixth Circuit notes that this standard was specifically disaffirmed by the 2008 ADA Amendments Act.

The panel also holds that a plaintiff need not specify a condition or diagnosis to the employer when requesting an accommodation. “Morrissey told Coldwater that she could not work more than twelve-hours per shift because she suffered from a disability as defined by the ADA. That was enough.”

It holds that Morrissey submitted enough evidence “to show that she is substantially limited in her ability to walk, stand, lift, or bend. In her deposition, Morrissey testified that she did not have a specific limitation on the distance she could walk, the amount of time she could stand, the amount of bending she could do, or the amount of weight she could lift. Instead, she averred that, after an eight to twelve-hour shift, she had difficulty walking, standing, lifting, and bending. She testified that she was in pain constantly, and her nursing shifts exacerbated the pain. Specifically, she said that she had severe pain in her buttocks and right leg and numbness and tingling in her feet after a shift.” She and her daughter testified about plaintiff’s limitations in daily self-care and housecleaning activities.

The district court also held that the employer had accommodated plaintiff, requiring only modestly longer shifts. Yet the record, if credited, showed that “(1) Coldwater had a blanket policy of denying accommodations for all non-work related disabilities, (2) Coldwater knew that Morrissey was under a twelve-hour work restriction, (3) Morrissey requested an accommodation, (4) Coldwater forced her to work beyond that restriction on January 31, 2016, and (5) Coldwater attempted to do so again five days later.”

The panel also holds that these facts supported a claim for ADA constructive discharge. “In the face of Coldwater’s repeated failures to honor Morrissey’s accommodation requests, a reasonable plaintiff in her position would have felt compelled to resign.” Defendant argued “that its blanket policy of denying accommodations for all non-work-related disabilities is ostensibly neutral,” but the panel notes that “Coldwater cannot refuse to provide Morrisey with a reasonable accommodation and then conclude that she is not qualified for her position because she cannot meet her job’s requirements without an accommodation.”

Finally, the panel holds that plaintiff presented a triable claim of retaliation: the requests for accommodation were “protected activity,” and constructive discharge constituted an adverse action.