Case Law / Legal Brief
A project of the Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University

Gruener v. Ohio Casualty Insurance Company

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
No. 510 F.3d 661
January 3, 2008

Summary

Employee (Gruener) sued employer (Ohio Casualty) after being terminated, following a surgery that rendered her unable to perform her job without accommodations. The district court ruled in favor of the Ohio Casualty and Gruener appealed. On appeal, Gruener claimed that (1) the trial court erred by not giving the jury her requested ADA regarded-as-disability definition, and (2) the trial court erred by denying her motion for a new trial. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Gruener’s evidence failed to prove Ohio Casualty mistakenly believed her impairments substantially limited her ability to perform manual tasks. The Sixth Circuit also declined to entertain Gruener’s appeal of the trial court’s denial of her motion for a new trial because she failed to properly amend her notice of appeal after her motion was denied. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

Facts of the Case

Beginning in 1998, plaintiff Sharon Gruener worked as a PC/LAN administrator at the Ohio Casualty Insurance Company for three years and received positive reviews. During her employment, she had degenerative joint disease in her knees and other weight-bearing joints. After undergoing double-knee replacement surgery in 2001, Gruener returned to work with a doctor's note describing her physical limitations, including restrictions on her ability to squat, crawl, or kneel.

The following year Ohio Casualty reorganized, and Gruener was transferred to a PC Services Technician position at a new location. The job description indicated that the position required walking, standing, stooping, climbing, and lifting heavy materials or equipment. After beginning at her new position, Gruener requested to flex her hours due to problems with vision at night. Gruener’s supervisor denied the request, and checked Gruener's personnel records for medical records pertaining to vision. Upon doing so, he discovered the doctor's note detailing Gruener’s physical limitations.

Gruener's supervisor then spoke with Gruener about her limitations and found that Gruener had been asking co-workers for help with tasks she could not perform. Ohio Casualty subsequently asked for, and Gruener provided, an updated certification of limitations. After receiving the information, Ohio Casualty managers concluded that Gruener could not perform the essential functions of her position, and terminated her. She remained "eligible for rehire," however, and management encouraged her to apply for another position in the company. Gruener declined to do so.

The trial court jury found that Gruener failed to prove she was a qualified individual with a disability. Gruener appealed on two grounds, contending “the trial court erred by (1) denying her requested jury instruction on the ADA’s regarded-as-disabled definition of disability, and (2) denying her motion for a new trial….”

Issues of the Case

  1. Did the trial court err by denying Gruener’s requested jury instruction on the ADA’s regarded-as-disabled definition of disability?
  2. Did the trial court err by denying Gruener’s motion for a new trial?

Arguments & Analysis

1. Jury Instruction

Citing its decision in Miller’s Bottled Gas, Inc. v. Borg-Warner Corp. (1995), the Sixth Circuit stated the rule that “A trial court may refuse to instruct the jury on an issue when there has been insufficient evidence presented to support a jury finding on that issue.” The court stated that the ADA’s regarded-as-disabled definition is designed to protect employees that are “perfectly able” to perform their jobs, but misconceptions about disabilities push these employees out of the job market. The regarded-as-disabled definition applies when “(1) [an employer] mistakenly believes that [an employee] has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or (2) [an employer] mistakenly believes that an actual, nonlimiting impairment substantially limits one or more [of an employee’s] major life activities,” citing the Supreme Court decision in Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc. (1999).

Gruener claimed that she demonstrated Ohio Casualty falsely believed that she could not perform the major life activities of manual tasks and work. However, her testimony demonstrated her actual inability to perform manual tasks, as she had spoken of her troubles taking care of herself, shopping, cleaning, and cooking.

As to work, Gruener pointed to Ohio Casualty’s admittance that it viewed Gruener as unable to perform her job as a PC services technician. She claimed that the evidence she produced, which showed she was able to perform her job as long as Ohio Casualty allowed for reasonable accommodations, proved she could do her job with her impairments. However, the court stated that she again failed to produce evidence to prove Ohio Casualty “entertained misconceptions” about her. The fact that she needed assistance from others did not prove that Ohio Casualty mistakenly believed Gruener was disabled. To the contrary, it showed her actual disability. She even admitted that Ohio Casualty’s perception of her limitations was formulated from the actual restrictions prescribed by her doctor.

Accordingly, as Gruener failed to produce sufficient evidence that supported her argument that she was regarded as having a disability by Ohio Casualty, the court concluded that the magistrate judge did not err in refusing to give Gruener’s proposed regarded-as-disabled definition instruction to the jury.

2. New Trial

Citing its decision in Pennington v. West Atlas, Inc. (2000), the court stated that the “court reviews weight of the evidence challenges if the appellant first files a motion for a new trial (or a motion to alter or amend the judgment) and then appeals the denial of that motion.” Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4 further mandates that, “A party intending to challenge an order disposing of a [new trial motion] must file a notice of appeal, or an amended notice of appeal… within the time prescribed by this Rule measured from the entry of the order disposing of the last such remaining motion.” Gruener filed a motion for a new trial after the jury’s verdict, but she failed to amend her notice of appeal after the trial court denied her motion. Therefore, the court did not entertain her appeal of the denial of her motion for new trial.

Ruling

The court found that Gruener's evidence relating to manual tasks pointed only to her actual inability to perform manual tasks, rather than to whether her employer regarded her as having a disability. With respect to work, the court found that Gruener’s evidence failed to show she was able to perform the job, and that there was no evidence that Ohio Casualty mistakenly regarded Gruener as having a disability. Because Gruener's regarded-as claim lacked proof, she was not entitled to a jury instruction on the matter.

Policy & Practice

During a jury trial, a court may use jury instructions to guide the jury in determining a specific issue of fact. Parties to the case may suggest instructions for this purpose. When a party proposes instructions for the jury to use in making a decision, the trial court may decline to instruct the jury on an issue if the evidence presented to support a finding is insufficient. In the present case, Gruener needed to point to evidence that Ohio Casualty mistakenly believed that she was substantially limited in a major life activity. Because the trial court record did not contain such evidence, Gruener was not entitled to a regarded-as-disabled instruction.

Update

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) broadened the definition of “regarded as” having a disability. This was an attempt to reinstate Congress’ intent to provide individuals with coverage under the “regarded as” prong as long as they can show they were treated poorly due to their perceived impairment, without having to prove they were perceived as severely impaired.

The Sixth Circuit Gruener decision, in part, was based on the proposition that a plaintiff must “specify which major life activity the Defendant believed was limited by an impairment.” However, the ADAAA now only requires that Plaintiffs establish "that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under Title I of the ADA because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity." For instance, in E.E.O.C. V. M.G.H. the District Court for the Western District of Michigan simply explains the new standard: “if an employer refused to hire an applicant because of skin graft scars, the employer has regarded the applicant as an individual with a disability.”

The ADAAA also states that “major life activity” definitions are now irrelevant to questions of whether an individual has been regarded as having a physical or mental impairment.

Links

Disclaimer:

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.

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