Balancing the safety of impaired employees with providing reasonable accommodations under disability employment law can be difficult for employers as illustrated in the Massachusetts court case of Nicole Cyr v. United Parcel Service. In that case on June 16, 2011, the federal trial judge denied summary judgment for UPS finding as triable issues whether Cyr was discriminated against based upon her disability and whether UPS failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for her disability. The Court agreed with UPS that Cyr could not go forward with her claim that UPS retaliated against her for raising her disability issues.
In 2000, Cyr began work with UPS as a field support technician. Field support technicians respond to customer calls about computer related issues. Some of the work is in the office and some involve travel for repairs and delivery of computer equipment. Four years later, Cyr was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. UPS made certain accommodations for her including changing her office building location closer to her home so she would have less driving distance and when requested, moved her office down onto the first floor so that she would not have to walk stairs. After several managers were replaced, UPS determined that she could not do the essential functions of her job because it required the ability to lift 70 pounds and to climb stairs repeatedly.
From August 2007 through May 2008, Cyr was on disability and was sent notifications of job openings on a bi-weekly basis. On June 4, 2008, Cyr resigned and this suit followed with disability claims under Massachusetts law and under the Americans With Disabilities Act. While UPS argued she could not perform the essential functions of her job, the fact that they had made accommodations through previous managers belied that argument and the Court found that a reasonable jury could find in Cyr’s favor against UPS both on her disability discrimination claim and failure to accommodate claim.
While UPS asserted that Cyr did not have any medical evidence that her impairment was to the level of a disability, the Court noted that an impairment that is episodic, such as multiple sclerosis, is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity which would include walking, standing, lifting, and working. While Cyr did not have substantial medical documentation as to her disability, she provided a great deal of testimony as to her limitations from which the Court ruled a jury could find that she was disabled. Cyr had also claimed she had been retaliated against yet she submitted no evidence that UPS had acted in malice or retaliation for her bringing the claim. The evidence actually indicated that they were concerned for her safety when they told her she could no longer do the job. While such a subjective safety concern does not get an employer out of the obligation to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee, proof that the reasons for adverse employment actions were safety motivated rather than in retaliation for raising the disability claim was enough to defeat a retaliation claim.
All in all, this case appeared to be a difficult one for an employer. Wherein there had already been a workable accommodation provided by former managers, it is difficult for an employer to contend that same accommodation is no longer workable particularly when those decisions are being made by new managers in that the only difference a jury may see is the potential discriminatory animus of the new managers. This is certainly not to say that UPS will not be able to present evidence to show Cyr was unable to perform her job functions with or without a reasonable accommodation, yet it is likely that Cyr’s counsel will be pointing out at trial the prior accommodations that UPS and Cyr lived with as evidence that those were reasonable accommodations that UPS could continue to live with.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].