Court Upholds City’s Termination of Worker with Lupus Based on Doctor’s Note Prohibiting Outdoor Work
Jimmy Mathis worked as a laborer for the City of Red Bank in Tennessee. Eventually he rose to the position of Assistant to the Director of Public Works. Initially he would inspect for building code violations, handle animal control problems, oversee street projects and handle citizen requests. A written job description described his duties, which also included exposure to temperature extremes during outdoor work.
In 2011 a new Public Works Director required of Mathis more code inspections, which meant more outdoors work. The level of outdoor work continued to rise in 2012 when Mathis’s desk was moved from City Hall to the Public Works Garage. He was no longer responsible for much of his former administrative work, and those duties moved to other employees.
By 2012 Mathis began to have skin problems and saw a dermatologist, who diagnosed Lupus. He took FMLA leave and his dermatologist, Dr. Susong, noted that Mathis needed to be indoors. Mathis next sought an indefinite leave, which lasted six months. During that time, the Department continued to restructure its workflow. A code enforcement officer was hired, and the position of Assistant to the Public Works Director was eliminated.
Preparing to return to work from leave, Mathis met with the Public Works Director and City Manager. There was a dispute whether they told Mathis his job would mainly involve code work. The reality is that his job continued to evolve into outdoor work. Mathis did not request an accommodation at this juncture. He bought protective clothing and was permitted to wear ultraviolet light protective shirts. He paid for them himself, but the City eventually bought him other such shirts.
By 2013 it was clear that the protective clothing was not reducing Mathis’s symptoms. He requested a new FMLA leave. His job at this point was described mainly as mowing grass and weeding. Dr. Susong wrote a certification stating that Mathis must avoid sunlight. Asked to clarify whether Mathis could not work outside, Dr. Susong said emphatically that he must work indoors.
The City met with Mathis, who inquired about possible indoor work but he was advised that he was not qualified for the two open jobs, lacking computer skills and a CDL. On account of the strongly worded note from Dr. Susong and the absence of any vacant positions, the City terminated Mathis’s employment. Mathis sued under the ADA alleging failure to make reasonable accommodation.
The City prevailed at the federal court level, and Mathis appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court observed that Mathis must show that he can perform the essential functions of his job with or without accommodation, but Mathis failed to do that. Mathis said he wanted to be returned to his pre-2011 work, but even that job required some outdoor work. There were days even in his pre-2011 job when Mathis would be outside four to five hours. The Court said that Dr. Susong’s note disqualified Mathis from any outdoor work.
During the course of litigation, Mathis changed his position and argued that he could handle limited sun exposure with protective clothing. After the City’s motion for summary judgment was filed, Dr. Susong watered down his initial certification which prohibited any outdoor work. The Court said that these after-the-fact changes in Mathis’s position were irrelevant. The City had the right to base its decision on the note that Dr. Susong prepared in 2013 prohibiting any outdoor work. The Court commented that essential functions of a job can and often do change. The changes in this case occurred well before Mathis’s diagnosis of lupus.
The Court concluded, “Mathis’s reasonable accommodation claim fails most plainly because the need for an accommodation was not apparent until mid-2013, when his limitations would not have allowed him to perform his desired job’s essential functions. But it also appears that no accommodation would have been available even if Mathis had requested one in early 2012, because the job he desired no longer existed.”
Mathis also argued that the City failed to engage in the interactive process. But the Court responded that before that process commences, the worker must inform the employer that a reasonable accommodation is needed. 29 C.F.R. Pt. 1630, App. In the end, the Court explained that the City really had no options once Dr. Susong wrote his note saying that Mathis could not have any outdoor exposure because Mathis was not qualified for any available indoor job.
This case points out the importance of having a good job description and the fact that jobs can and do change, adding and sometimes subtracting essential functions. The case also demonstrates the power that doctors have when they prepare medical certifications regarding restrictions at work. In this case Dr. Susong’s restriction against any outdoor work boxed the plaintiff out of his job. A late attempt by the doctor to amend his opinion during litigation but after the job termination was properly rejected by the court. What matters is what information the employer has at the time it makes its employment decision, and in this case, the doctor’s report was crystal clear in stating that Mathis could have no outdoor exposure. This case can be found at Mathis v. City of Red Bank, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 19423 (6th Cir. 2016).