Do Fingers With Frostbite Constitute a Disability Under the ADA?

By Eric B. Meyer

Let’s talk about what it means to have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act.

In Wilson v. Iron Tiger Logistics, the plaintiff, a truck driver, developed frostbite on a bunch of fingers while performing maintenance on his truck in Canada in -25 degree weather.

That’s dedication to your work! Although, speaking of dedication and cold weather, I think of those smokers who stand 21 feet away from our office in the dead of winter — not -25 degrees, but still pretty frickin’ cold — holding that cigarette to their lips. Now, that is some serious dedication.

Plaintiff not “substantially limited”

Now, let me finish this post.

So, our frostbitten plaintiff gets fired for refusing another dispatch to Canada. (In the interim, plaintiff’s employer offered plaintiff winter gloves while delivering loads, to take longer while delivering loads, and to warm up his hands in the cab of his truck or the customers’ facilities while delivering loads).

After the firing, the plaintiff brings an ADAAA claim, which, in this opinion, the Court acknowledges sets the bar awfully low for what conditions constitute a “disability” under the law. However, in this particular case, the court concluded that the plaintiff had not presented enough evidence that he was substantially limited in his ability to perform a major life activity:

The only major life activity plaintiff can point to as being affected by his frostbite is the ability to work. …The only restrictions are for cold weather climates in the winter. … Dr. Jennings did not state that plaintiff should be permanently restricted from exposure to cold temperatures, but rather that plaintiff needs to avoid any prolonged exposure to cold and that he must be able to wear gloves and warm up his fingers if he feels any pain in the fingertips.

Because the Court finds that plaintiff has not produced any evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that plaintiffs impairment substantially limits a major life activity the plaintiff has failed to establish that he is disabled under the first prong for qualifying as disabled under the ADA and ADAAA

Did the Court miss on this one?

I think the court got this wrong.

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As discussed before here, to qualify as a “disability,” the condition at issue does not need to be permanent. EEOC Guidance on this issue further underscores that even impairments lasting less than six months can qualify as a disability.

That this dude had frostbite, worked in the cold, and had a doctor saying that he should avoid prolonged exposure to cold, suggests to me that he was substantially limited in working this particular job, which in his world, is a major life activity.

But, who am I to judge a judge? I’m probably wrong. Yet, if I am wrong, just remember that, generally, it’s easy to establish an ADA disability.

In your workplace, when an employee who claims to have a disability seeks a workplace accommodation, you have the right to vet whether the employee has a disability. But, I’d focus more on the accommodation.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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2 Comments on “Do Fingers With Frostbite Constitute a Disability Under the ADA?

  1. Maybe I’m not reading this right, but it looks like the doctor gave specific instructions about not having prolonged contact with the cold, being able to warm his fingers when needed, and wearing gloves, which are all things that the company was willing to make accommodation for. The reason he was fired was because he refused to do his job. Accommodation was made, then refused by the plaintiff. I don’t think it can be refuted that frostbite can cause disability…heck, you can easily lose fingers, toes, ears and nose to it (it’s fun if you read that in a sing song voice). In this case (and speaking as a Canadian who lives where -25 is a normal temperature in winter), the frostbite was not that severe, and a reasonable person would not be impaired in his ability to do the work with accommodation. I think they got it right.

  2. I agree with Chad and the author. I believe the plaintiff fell under ADA, but the accommodations had been made to address the issue and he had no grounds to refuse work. It would be like an employee in a wheel chair stating they couldn’t make it into the office because of the stairs, after you put in a ramp. If the employer accommodates an ADA request and the employee refuses to work anyway then that seems like pretty cut and dry grounds for termination.
    I think the fact that someone went anywhere in freezing temperatures without bringing proper gear would be cause to reconsider employing them anyway. My car has blankets, medical supplies, visibility gear, flashlights, gloves, etc. and I live in a moderate climate metropolitan area. Going out in -25 weather without gloves or protecting yourself by limiting exposure doesn’t sound like someone with common sense.

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