How Not to Handle Return to Work When Accommodations Required

How Not to Handle Return to Work When Accommodations Required

The Northern District of Illinois recently denied a trucking company’s motion to dismiss an employee’s disability discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).[1]  Among the arguments in support of their motion to dismiss, the trucking company alleged that the employee did not adequately demonstrate that he was disabled or perceived as disabled within the ADA classification, and the employee did not make a request for a specific vacant position.[2]  The Northern District disagreed and denied the motion.[3]


Factual Background

The plaintiff in this case was employed as a driver for FleetPride Inc. (“FleetPride”) for many years.  On December 22, 2016, he was injured on the job.[4]  Plaintiff’s physician ultimately released him to return to work on May 18, 2017 with permanent restrictions precluding him from lifting more than 35 pounds and limiting his pushing and pulling to 150 pounds.[5]  Plaintiff requested FleetPride provide him accommodated work, and he contends he told FleetPride: “he was willing and able to take on either a new position, or a position in an alternative location.”[6]  FleetPride did not communicate any job vacancies to plaintiff, and on May 22, 2017, FleetPride discharged plaintiff, stating “since your restrictions are permanent, unfortunately we are unable to accommodate.”[7]

In plaintiff’s first amended complaint, he alleged disability discrimination based on his discharge and failure to accommodate his disability in violation of the ADA.[8]  FleetPride moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim.[9]  FleetPride’s motion argued plaintiff did not sufficiently allege he was actually disabled under the terms of the ADA, he was not perceived as disabled, and he did not identify a specific vacant position to which he could have been transferred.[10]  The Northern District disagreed with FleetPride’s arguments for the reasons outlined below.


ADA Definition of Disability and Perceived Disability:

In determining if plaintiff was disabled within the ADA classification, the court discussed Section 42 U.S.C. § 12102 defines “disability” as: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual, a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.”[11]  The ADA defines major life activities as: “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”[12]  Finally, the ADA defines the third requirement of being regarded as having such an impairment: “if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.”[13]

Plaintiff alleged in his first amended complaint that his lifting and ability to push and pull were limited due to his injury.[14]  Additionally, he also alleged he was unable to return to his pre-injury job as a driver.[15]  Based on the ADA definition, the court pointed to “lifting” and “working” as being within the classification of major life activities and determined plaintiff sufficiently pled that he was disabled.[16]  The court also determined plaintiff was regarded as having an impairment by FleetPride.[17]  The court reasoned FleetPride terminated plaintiff once they were aware of his restrictions and the termination was due to their perception he had a physical impairment.[18]


Failure to Accommodate:

In addition to FleetPride alleging plaintiff was not disabled or regarded as disabled within the definition of the ADA, FleetPride alleged plaintiff did not identify a specific open position to which he could have been transferred.[19] The court determined plaintiff sufficiently requested accommodation and need not point to a specific position.[20]  FleetPride’s response to plaintiff’s request for accommodation was: “since your restrictions are permanent, unfortunately we are unable to accommodate.”[21] The court reasoned because FleetPride did not communicate with plaintiff to ascertain if a position was available, they did not “engage in the interactive process.”

The court pointed to the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning in E.E.O.C. v. United Airlines, Inc where the court held: “the ADA does indeed mandate that an employer appoint employees with disabilities to vacant positions for which they are qualified, provided that such accommodations would be ordinarily reasonable and would not present an undue hardship to that employer.” [22] The court determined plaintiff’s failure to accommodate claim was valid given FleetPride did not even engage in the discussion of accommodation or reassignment. [23]



The decision in Gray provides guidance to employers for circumstances when an employee returns to work requesting accommodation within their permanent restrictions.  The ADA requires employers to find accommodations for employees with disabilities assuming those accommodations would be reasonable and do not present hardship to the employer.  It is critical for employers to show they engaged in the “interactive process” and identified open positions as part of that process, especially in situations when the employee has requested accommodation.




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[1] Gray v. FleetPride, Inc., 21 C 4981, 2022 WL 10080811, at 1 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 17, 2022)

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 7.

[7] Id. at 1.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 2.

[11] 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(1).

[12] 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(2).

[13] 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(3).

[14] Gray at 2.

[15] Id. at 3

[16] Id. at 5.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 7.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. (citing E.E.O.C. v. United Airlines, Inc., 693 F.3d 760 (7th Cir. 2012)).

[23] Id. at 7.