Fourth Circuit says man kept lifting, must not have been disabled

RICHMOND, Va. – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has affirmed a West Virginia federal court's summary judgment ruling in favor of the American Red Cross Greenbrier Valley Chapter in a case where a former employee made several Americans with Disabilities Act claims.

Judge Stephanie D. Thacker wrote the Dec. 7 opinion of the unanimous three-judge panel that included judges Robert B. King and Barbara Milano Keenan.

Plaintiff Benjamin S. Reynolds filed suit in the Southern District of West Virginia after failing to prevail in a workers compensation claim and, afterward, with a disability discrimination charge against the Red Cross chapter with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

Reynolds was hired by Greenbrier Valley Executive Director Walter Lockhart, a long-time friend, as a full-time employee in 2006 after having worked as a volunteer, per diem employee and part-time employee from 1994-2006.

According to the opinion, “On or about August 5 or 6, 2006 during the first week that Reynolds worked as Manager of Service Delivery, Lockhart instructed Reynolds to help move a baby grand piano from the home of a donor to Lockhart’s personal residence.

“Reynolds alleges that he experienced ‘severe pain in both his neck and upper back’ when he started moving the piano... Reynolds alleges, however, that Lockhart ‘ignored [his] plea [to stop moving the piano] and required him to continue assisting in delivering and unloading the piano to his personal residence.’”

After Reynolds visited the emergency room “a few days later... to seek relief from the persistent and severe pain in his neck and upper back,” he was referred to Dr. Dilaawar Mistry and Lockhart drove him to his appointment with Dr. Mistry on Sept. 7, 2006.

As a result of this appointment, Reynolds made a follow-up appointment with Dr. Mistry for Sept. 19, 2006, and was given a note saying he could return to work “with restrictions that include lifting weights only up to 15 pounds.”

“Reynolds continued to lift things upon his return to work,” the opinion states. "(H)e did not return to Dr. Mistry (or to any doctor) for a determination that his lifting restriction of fifteen pounds should be permanent.”

Toward the end of 2006, the Chapter “determined that it no longer had the funds to pay Reynolds” and at the end of January, Lockhart verbally informed him of his termination and Reynolds received a termination letter.

Reynolds then tried to get workers' compensation and then filed his complaint with the EEOC. In March 2008, he got a job as a teacher in North Carolina and was injured on that job while moving books.

After being injured in the book-moving incident, Reynolds filed for workers' compensation benefits and, according to the opinion, has been receiving those benefits from the state of North Carolina since August 21, 2008.

After the district court granted summary judgment to the Red Cross chapter, Reynolds appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

Reynolds said he was fired because of his alleged disability (his primary ADA claim) and was retaliated against for engaging in protected activities under the ADA.

To survive summary judgment on the primary ADA claim, Reynolds needed to prove he was a qualified individual with a disability, was discharged, was fulfilling his employer's and the circumstances of his discharge raised a reasonable inference of unlawful discrimination.

“Evidence of all four of these elements is necessary to survive summary judgment,” Thacker wrote. “Reynolds’ claim fails at step one.”

In order for Reynolds to prove that he had a qualifying disability, he had to produce evidence that he had a physical impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities, he had a “record of” a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or he was “regarded as” having a physical impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities.

“Reynolds primarily cites ‘lifting’ as the major life activity in which he is substantially limited due to his alleged back and neck injuries... Reynolds had not shown that his alleged injuries have ‘prevented or restricted him...’ from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.

“In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. Reynolds continued to lift things upon his return to work; he did not return to Dr. Mistry (or to any doctor) for a determination that his lifting restriction of fifteen pounds should be permanent; and even at his new job in North Carolina, he took on the task of transporting 195 books, which signals that he did not believe himself to be limited in the activity of lifting.”

The Court next addressed whether Reynolds had satisfied the second definition of a disability – having a record of a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

“Contrary to Reynolds’s bold assertion, unless the purported medical records were placed in the record — which they admittedly were not — they do not, in fact, exist for the purpose of this appeal. Therefore, by his admission, Reynolds acknowledges that he failed to satisfy his burden of production," Thacker wrote.

As to whether Reynolds was “regarded as” having a physical impairment by the Chapter, Thacker wrote, “ To the contrary, Lockhart expected Reynolds to continue lifting things at work, and Reynolds continued to do so.

“Therefore, Reynolds comes up short on each of the three ADA definitions of disability, and we affirm the judgment of the district court with regard to the primary ADA claim.

“The retaliation claim based on Reynolds’s workers’ compensation inquiry also fails... Filing a workers’ compensation claim is not something that is covered by the ADA, but rather by retaliation provisions under state law.”

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