An injured worker can potentially have a workers’ compensation claim because of a work injury, and then a disability discrimination claim out of the same set of facts while trying to return to work. However, there are significant differences in the two claims. The Iowa Supreme Court issued a decision on June 25, 2021 in the case of Ronald Rumsey v. Woodgrain Millwork, Inc. d/b/a Windsor Windows and Doors which address these differences.

The worker has been deaf since birth.  He uses a hearing aid, but generally relies on lip reading and sign language in order to communicate.

The employer found that the claimant was an excellent employee for many years, including being awarded Employee of the Month twice.

Although the claimant did not ask for a sign language interpreter for his day-to-day work, he did request a sign language interpreter for certain events such as speaking with human resources or attending medical appointments.  The employer had always complied with those sign language interpreter requests.

The Claimant had a very physically demanding job as a fabricator. In early 2015 the claimant hurt his back and shoulder while moving a large pane of glass from the rack to a worktable.

The claimant brought a workers’ compensation claim and received medical care from company-provided doctors.  Over the coming months the claimant’s doctors gave him various work restrictions and the employer complied with the restrictions by assigning him to light-duty work.

Dr. Todd Harbach concluded that the claimant’s back pain would not be helped by surgery, but that the right shoulder problems would be helped by surgery.

On July 29, 2015, the claimant was declared to be at maximum medical improvement for his back and given a permanent 10-pound weightlifting restriction.

The claimant underwent right shoulder surgery on September 23, 2015, and then went through a course of physical therapy.  The claimant returned to work in November of 2015 but continued to have back and shoulder problems.

The claimant and the company went through a complicated series of disputes and arguments concerning his work restrictions.

The restriction disputes came to a head in mid-December of 2015 after the employer convinced the doctors to remove a restriction limiting the claimant to seated work.

The parties generally disagree on what happened on the December morning when he was advised that the sitting restriction had been removed.  The claimant was asked to sign off on the new restrictions, and became angry and upset. The employer stated that the claimant became threatening and knocked some paperwork to the floor. The claimant disagreed.

The claimant was terminated that day for insubordination. Following the claimant’s termination, he filed a workers’ compensation case and a civil claim for employment discrimination. The claimant settled his workers’ compensation case and proceeded to trial on the employment claims.

In disability discrimination cases the worker has to prove that he could perform the essential functions of the job.  Additionally, the employer is not required to create a new job as an accommodation.  The Iowa Courts, and many courts across the country have found that not every workplace injury results in a disability that can be accommodated.

If the worker cannot identify a regular permanent job that he or she could perform, then the disability discrimination claim will generally fail.

A key issue was whether the claimant had the ability to work at a regular job. The claimant had been applying weather stripping and foam to doors as a light duty job, and believed that this light duty job could have been a full-time position. The employer argued that the claimant’s light duty job was only a small part of a regular fabrication job.  The employer also argued that the claimant was working very limited hours, and the factory did not produce enough doors to provide a full-time position for the claimant doing his limited light duty segment.

Count 1 of the employment claims was for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate. The first issue was whether the claimant could perform the essential functions of the job. This requires the Court and jury to consider whether the person has the necessary skills, experience, education and other job-related requirements of the position that the claimant holds or desires to hold.

The parties agree that the heavy lifting required at the claimant’s original fabrication job prevented him from returning to that position. However, the claimant could also satisfy this element by showing there was another position to which he could have been assigned. This option is frequently called “reassignment” under the law, and requires the worker to identify a currently available vacant position that the employee is qualified to perform. Accommodation by reassignment does not require an employer to respond by creating a vacant position. Nor does it require the employer to create a new job from tasks taken from other employees. The law also does not require employers to turn a temporary workplace accommodation into a permanent position that did not previously exist.

The jury in the discrimination case ruled in favor of the claimant and awarded him substantial monetary damages.

However, on appeal the Iowa Supreme Court found that the claimant could not establish the element of being able to perform the essential functions of a regular job. The light duty job he was doing was not a full-time position. In the four weeks before his termination he had only averaged working 12 hours per week, and that was enough time to do his light-duty portion of work for each door produced in the factory. The Court found that the light-duty job that the claimant was doing was only a temporary job, and not a permanent vacant position in the factory.

The claimant also alleged that he had been retaliated against for requesting a sit-down accommodation. In order to show retaliation, the claimant needs to show:

  1. He was engaged in a statutory protected activity.
  2. He was subjected to an adverse employment action.
  3. Causal connection between his participation in the protected activity and the adverse employment action.

Under Iowa law requesting an accommodation is generally viewed as engaging in a statutorily protected activity.

Iowa law also defines a reasonable accommodation as a change which would allow the worker with a disability to be able to perform the essential functions of the position.  The Court found that Mr. Rumsey’s request for a seated accommodation would not have allowed the claimant to perform all the functions of the door fabricator job, and therefore this claim failed also.

The Iowa Supreme Court remanded the case for a retrial with specific orders on how the jury instructions should be drafted.

In summary, some of the elements that make for a strong and valuable workers’ compensation case also hurt the strength and viability of a discrimination case.  When a worker receives a serious injury and is not able to return to his regular job that is strong evidence of the seriousness of the workers’ compensation injury and results in a substantial work comp recovery.

However, in that same situation, the potential discrimination case is not strong because employers do not have an unlimited duty to provide light-duty work or new job duties after an injury. It is always good strategy to proceed carefully and with legal advice before making any ultimatums about your job.