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MacDonald v. United Parcel Service (UPS)

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
430 Fed.Appx. 453
July 14, 2011

Keywords:  employment, legal concepts, major life activity, thinking

Facts of the Case

The Plaintiff, Joseph MacDonald, worked as a driver for United Parcel Service (UPS) for more than 30 years. In 2005, he was involved in automobile accident and suffered a head injury. He spent three months recovering, and then returned to work April 18, 2005 after being cleared by his doctor to resume a normal workload. He informed his supervisor that as a result of his injury he had developed memory problems. Throughout MacDonald’s career, he had successfully taken monthly written tests on safety information relevant to his job.

After his return to work, for the first time on April 11, 2006, UPS asked MacDonald to take an additional “on the spot” oral quiz, in which he was asked to recite safety rules from memory. The “spot” quizzes were not normally administered to UPS drivers, although they had been used previously on occasion.  MacDonald was then ordered to study and memorize the rules. He indicated to his supervisor that he was unable to do so because of his memory problems, and suggested that it was not necessary given his long track record of safe driving, which had not changed since his return to work. Four days later, he was terminated for failing to study the rules. MacDonald filed a grievance with his union, which led to his termination being changed to a suspension.

On September 15, 2006, MacDonald was tested with another “spot” quiz and failed. During the quiz, MacDonald again notified UPS that he suffered from memory problems, and offered written documentation from his doctor, which the employer refused to review. MacDonald then contacted a human resources officer, requested the accommodation of being allowed to use UPS’s pocket safety card during safety quizzes because of his memory-related disability, and allegedly complained that he was being harassed because of his memory-related disability. Later that day, he was terminated.

MacDonald filed another grievance with the union on September 27, 2006. UPS asked for medical documentation of his memory impairment (which was provided), and termination was rescinded.  Again on December 18, 2006, MacDonald filed a grievance with his union claiming that UPS management was not giving due consideration to his physical condition. MacDonald had repeated conflicts with his supervisor after his return. On January 3, 2007, UPS issued a notice to MacDonald indicating they were unable to conclude that he was eligible for an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After a heated dispute with his supervisor, he was terminated a final time on January 29, 2007.

MacDonald filed suit against UPS for age and disability discrimination and retaliation. MacDonald’s disability discrimination and/or retaliation claims were brought pursuant to the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA), which parallels claims under the ADA. The district court ruled in favor of the employer on all claims, and noted that MacDonald did not meet the definition of a person with a disability under either state or federal law. MacDonald appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

Issues of the Case

  1. Is MacDonald’s head injury, resulting in memory impairment, a disability under the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA)?

Arguments & Analysis

1. MacDonald’s Memory Impairment is Not Clearly Substantial.

Both the federal and state laws in this case indicate that a disability must “substantially” limit a “major life activity”. The court noted that MacDonald’s doctor indicated that his memory impairment was relatively mild. It also acknowledged testimony from MacDonald’s family that he routinely forgot family events, or tasks such as running errands, and needed a special system in order to remember to take medications. However, the court felt that these limitations were unremarkable, not differing from the “average person”, and not substantial. The court further noted it is uncertain whether a more severe memory impairment could constitute a disability, depending on whether “thinking” or “concentrating” are defined as major life activities. The court looked to ADA case law in determining whether MacDonald was substantially limited under the PWDCRA.


The court ruled for the defendant employer, holding that MacDonald does not have a qualifying disability under either the ADA or the Michigan PWDCRA, and also affirming the district court’s dismissal of all other claims.

Policy & Practice

Memory Impairments May Not Constitute a Disability.

The Sixth Circuit indicates that a memory impairment may not be sufficient to establish a qualifying disability under the ADA or comparable state law, unless it can be demonstrated that memory deficits are significantly beyond those experienced by the “average person”. The Sixth Circuit could not find any relevant case law under PWDCRA as to whether memory and thinking are major life activities. In 2008, Congress amended the ADA to explicitly include “thinking” as substantially affecting a major life activity, but that amendment does not speak to this case because it was not in effect during the events that led up to this case. The Sixth Circuit notes that courts recently have recognized that thinking is a major life activity. The Sixth Circuit did not determine if thinking is a major life activity under PWDCRA because MacDonald did not raise a material issue of fact, but the court did indicate that it likely would find that thinking is a major life activity stating “[i]t seems a bit bizarre to flatly say that thinking—the very activity that makes us human—is not ‘major’ enough.”



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 These materials
were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI)
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highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections
and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with
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