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Appeals court affirms that deaf employee could safely perform the essential functions of forklift-operator job

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

In Siewertsen v. Worthington Industries, Inc., the appeals court affirmed a jury verdict in an employee's favor for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an unpublished opinion in a case entitled Siewertsen v. Worthington Industries, Inc. affirming a jury verdict secured by a deaf employee, Nicholas Siewertsen, against his employer for disability discrimination. Siewertsen had brought suit against Worthington Industries, Inc., a steel manufacturer, after it removed him from his job as a forklift operator. The lawsuit alleged that his removal was discriminatory, violating both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Ohio law.

Key among the many issues addressed by the Sixth Circuit was Siewertsen’s ability to safely perform the essential job functions of a forklift operator. Worthington Industries contended he could not. It submitted evidence that it implemented a company-wide policy disallowing deaf employees from operating forklifts only after soliciting an opinion from a third-party forklift expert. It also pointed to policies that required forklift operators to sound the horn when approach certain high-risk areas.

Yet the jury, and ultimately the Sixth Circuit, sided with Siewertsen on this issue. To counter the company’s defense, he presented expert testimony to support that he could still effectively communicate with co-workers through hand signals. Even more important, Siewertsen had worked as a forklift operator for over ten years without a single accident. This evidence also undercut the company’s defense that Siewertsen’s operation of a forklift posed a direct threat to others.

In reaching its holding, the appeals court stressed the employer’s obligation to conduct an individualized assessment of an employee’s abilities. The court reaffirmed that employers are not permitted to take adverse actions against employees with disabilities based on generalizations or stereotypes associated with their disabilities. What matters is what a specific employee can do.

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Related Practice Areas
Employment DiscriminationEmployment RetaliationDiscrimination Against Deaf People

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