Sanitation Worker’s Disability Discrimination Claim Survives Summary Judgment

In Echeverri v. The New York City Dept. of Sanitation, No. 15 CIV. 80 (LGS), 2016 WL 427914 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 3, 2016), the court denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s disability discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the NYC Human Rights Law..

This opinion is instructive on, among other things, what the “essential functions” of a job are in the context of disability discrimination allegations.

Plaintiff, a Sanitation Worker with the new York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), alleged “that when Defendants found Plaintiff medically disqualified from employment as a Sanitation Worker with DSNY due to his low blood platelet count, they made an adverse employment decision against him on the basis of an actual and perceived disability.”

The court explained:

Plaintiff’s claims alleging discrimination under the ADA are subject on summary judgment to the burden-shifting framework established by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). … Under this framework, the first step is that Plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA. The elements of a claim for discrimination under the ADA are that: (1) the employer is subject to the ADA; (2) Plaintiff is disabled within the meaning of the ADA or perceived to be so by her employer; (3) Plaintiff was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation; (4) Plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action; and (5) the adverse action was imposed because of Plaintiff’s disability, an element that is met by showing that the adverse employment action took place under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. (Emphasis added.)

Defendants conceded most of these elements, and argued only that “no reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff has shown that he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the Sanitation Worker job with or without reasonable accommodation.”

With respect to “essential functions”, the court stated:

Determining the essential functions of a job requires a fact-specific inquiry into both the employer’s description of a job and how the job is actually performed in practice. Relevant factors include the employer’s judgment, written job descriptions, the amount of time spent on the job performing the function, the mention of the function in a collective bargaining agreement, the work experience of past employees in the position, and the work experience of current employees in similar positions. … A court must give considerable deference to an employer’s judgment regarding what functions are essential for service in a particular position. This judgment must be explained and supported by the record. Here the Notice of Examination delineates the tasks of the position as primarily lifting, loading, pushing and pulling, at times in slippery or hazardous conditions. …

The issue is not whether Plaintiff can lift, carry, push and load, rather whether he can do so safely — i.e., without unreasonable risk to himself or others. A court necessarily must consider both the type of position for which the plaintiff claims to be otherwise qualified, and the consequences of a potential mishap. What may be a reasonable risk for one job may be unacceptable for another.

Applying the law, the court held:

Plaintiff has made a prima facie showing that he can perform the job of Sanitation Worker reasonably safely. The DSNY medical standards make recommendations regarding how much impairment would preclude a candidate from safely performing the fundamental duties of Sanitation Worker. The standards provide that hematologic disorders require medical clearance. When DSNY determined that Plaintiff had a low platelet count, consistent with the DSNY medical standards, they informed him that he required hematology clearance and a doctor’s letter addressing the cause of his condition and prescribed treatment. He produced such a letter from a hematologist whom he saw several times. The letter stated that the cause of Plaintiff’s condition was idiopathic; that the prescribed treatment was steroids and monitoring; and that he was cleared for the job. The letter implies that Plaintiff’s condition was not sufficiently serious as to be disabling, and that when treated, the risks associated with the condition were minimized. Drawing all inferences in favor of the moving party, the letter is sufficient for Plaintiff’s prima facie case.

While defendants argued that “the letter is unreliable, does not reference the functions of a Sanitation Worker, and does not elaborate on how or why the hematologist reached her conclusion”, the court held that “[t]hese arguments are akin to credibility arguments and are not a basis for granting summary judgment.”

The court also found that since Defendants’ motion failed under federal law, it necessarily fails under the (broader) NYC Human Rights Law.

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