- An unsuccessful applicant for an assembly line position at Ford, who was born without a left forearm and hand, was unable to prove his claims of disability discrimination and retaliation under Missouri state law (Heuton v. Ford Motor Company, No. 18-2130 (8th Cir. July 23, 2019)).
- Ford asked the applicant, Jeremy Heuton, to get a doctor's note stating that he was unable to grip anything with his left hand even though he did not have a left hand. After Heuton provided such a note, plus an additional note from a different doctor that highlighted his abilities, Ford rejected him for work on the grounds that most of the jobs at the assembly plant required the use of two hands and arms.
- The court determined that Heuton failed to show that Ford regarded him as having a disability, in violation of Missouri law, and also failed to provide convincing evidence that Ford retaliated against him for bringing a complaint. Accordingly, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court's ruling of summary judgment in favor of Ford. The 8th Circuit noted some differences between the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Missouri law that could have had an impact on the outcome of Heuton's case, had he asserted violations of federal law instead.
The ADA bars employers from bias against qualified individuals with a disability. A "disability" is defined as a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. As this case highlights, the ADA also prohibits discrimination against a qualified person on the basis of a perceived disability, whether or not the person is actually considered to have a disability under the ADA. Bias on the basis of a perceived disability is called "regarded as" discrimination.
For more than a decade, the focus for establishing protection under the ADA's "regarded as" component has been on how an individual person is treated because of a physical or mental impairment, rather than on what the employer may have believed about the nature of the person's impairment.
If a qualified worker or applicant has a disability, as defined by the ADA, an employer is generally required to provide a reasonable accommodation, unless to do so would create an undue hardship. The approach taken by an employer can mean the difference between a successful interactive process and a potential bias lawsuit. In this case, for example, it appears Ford could have acted with greater sensitivity than to request a doctor's note from Heuton about his ability to grip with his left hand after he already informed Ford that he was born without one.