One of the most difficult dilemmas for employers is how to treat an employee who is returning to work with a lifting restriction. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) describes a disability as "[A] a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; or [B] a record of such impairment; or [C] being regarded as having such an impairment." Working is expressly included as a major life activity.
According to the regulations, in order to demonstrate that a person is substantially limited in the major life activity of working, the person must be "significantly restricted in ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person with comparable training, skills and abilities. The inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working."
To determine whether a physical impairment significantly restricts an ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs, the regulations require consideration of "1) the nature and severity of the impairment; 2) the duration or expected duration of the impairment; or 3) the permanent or long-term impact, or the expected permanent or long-term impact of or resulting from the impairment." An employer must "make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitation of an applicant or employee who is a qualified individual with a disability, unless the employer can demonstrate the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer."
A number of recent cases have ruled that a lifting restriction of 25 pounds or less is not a disability under the ADA. In McKay v Toyota Motor Manufacturing, USA, Inc, a decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the plaintiff developed carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive motion work on the automobile manufacturing line. Her doctor placed her on a 20 pound lifting restriction with no repetitive use of her right hand and no vibrating tools. The plaintiff was terminated by Toyota because she was unable to perform her job. Plaintiff claimed that she was discharged because of her disability.
The Court found that she was qualified for numerous positions not requiring repetitive auto work and that "[h]er condition did not significantly restrict her 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."
In Corrigan v Perry, a case from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the plaintiff hurt his back and was placed on a 25-pound lifting restriction. Plaintiff quit over a dispute whether his employer would accommodate a light-duty restriction. The court decided "[a]s a matter of law, the 25-pound lifting restriction does not constitute a significant restriction on one's ability to lift, work, or perform other major life activity."
Similarly, in Williams v Channel Master Satellite Systems, Inc., another Fourth Circuit decision, the plaintiff was placed on a 25-pound lifting restriction, and told to avoid pushing and pulling heavy objects. Plaintiff was ultimately terminated. The Court stated found "ADA protects only people whose impairments are so severe that they significantly restrict a person's ability to perform major life activities when compared to the average person in the general population. As a matter of law, a 25 pound lifting restriction, particularly when compared to an average person's abilities, does not constitute a significant restriction on one's ability to work, lift, or perform other major life activity."
Although every situation involving a lifting restriction will involve analysis of the particular facts involved, it appears from recent court decisions that employers may not be required to treat a person with a lifting restriction of 25 pounds or less as a person with a disability and, thus, not be required to provide reasonable accommodation.