Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals
669 F.3d 172
February 10, 2012
Keywords: employment, legal concepts, major life activity, substantially limited
Facts of the Case
Michael R. Boitnott began working as a maintenance engineer at Corning Incorporated (“Corning”) in 1989. He worked twelve-hour shifts and alternated two weeks of day shifts with two weeks of night shifts, a typical work schedule for Corning. In May 2002, while on a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) because of abdominal problems, Boitnott had a heart attack, resulting in short term disability leave. He returned to working his previous schedule in September 2002, but further treatment for his cardiac condition required additional absences from work.
In June 2003, Boitnott requested that his schedule be modified to 12-hour, non-rotating day shifts, and was informed that he would have to present a doctor’s note explaining that Boitnott had a specific disability and how it required him to work only day shifts. Boitnott provided a note from his doctor stating that “[d]ue to Mr. Boitnott’s medical condition, he should do straight time, one shift.” Corning denied his request because the note was not sufficient to establish that Boitnott had a disability, and thus he was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation of his work schedule. Boitnott took another FMLA leave from November 2003 until February 2004 because of fatigue and was diagnosed with leukemia, which his doctors determined did not require treatment at that time. Boitnott’s doctor cleared him for work in February 2004 for 8-hour days, but Corning concluded that Boitnott did not have a permanent disability and argued it was not required to accommodate him under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
Boitnott did not return to work. He applied for and was granted long-term disability benefits by MetLife, Corning’s disability carrier, and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in May 2004, alleging that Corning denied him a reasonable accommodation by refusing to modify his work schedule in violation of the ADA. On October 1, MetLife stopped Boitnott’s disability benefits because Boitnott was able to work a forty-hour work week and because there were maintenance engineer positions in the area that did not require overtime work, suggesting he was not substantially limited in the major life activity of working.
In April 2005, Corning created a new position that would require five 8–hour days per week with limited overtime, and in late April Boitnott obtained a doctor’s note stating that he could work moderate overtime. On July 27, 2005, Corning sought applicants for the position and Boitnott eventually was hired.
Boitnott filed a lawsuit alleging that Corning violated the ADA by denying his requested for a reasonable accommodation to modify his work schedule, seeking a declaratory judgment that Corning violated the ADA, an award of back pay and lost benefits, attorney’s fees, and other compensatory damages. The District Court found that Boitnott was not a qualified individual with a disability.
Issues of the Case
- Is an employee who can work full-time but not overtime substantially limited in the major life activity of working?
Arguments & Analysis
1. Major Life Activity
The U.S. Supreme Court in Sutton v. United Airlines (1999) concluded that a court could consider work as a major life activity as a last resort if there was no other way to establish an impairment that substantially limited a major life activity. In the present case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that in the context of work, a plaintiff must show that an impairment significantly restricts the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes compared to the average person with similar skills and training, and that an inability to perform a particular job is not a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.
2. Substantially Limited
The Fourth Circuit noted every Circuit that has addressed the issue (i.e., the First, Third, Fifth, Sixth and Eight Circuits) has decided that an employee capable of working a “normal” forty-hour work week, but who is unable to work overtime because of an impairment, is not substantially limited in the major life activity of working. The Court made clear that the main obstacle Boitnott faced in returning to work was his inability to work overtime. The Court added that Boitnott did not present evidence that his inability to work overtime significantly restricted his “ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities.” Therefore, he was not substantially limited in his ability to work.
The Fourth Circuit ruled that because Boitnott was not substantially limited in the major life activity of working, he did not have a disability as defined by the ADA.
Policy & Practice
Following this ruling, if a plaintiff who wishes to bring a disability claim can work a “normal” eight-hour work day and forty-hour work week, he or she may be barred from bringing the claim if the only major life activity in which the plaintiff is substantially limited is working. Notably, in the Southeastern United States, individuals in the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Circuits who wish to bring Title I cases will have an easier time if they state that they are substantially limited in a major life activity other than working. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 adopted the position that asserting the major life activity of working should be avoided if possible, although the Amendments Act was not applicable in this case.
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.