MILLER v. ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION (May 10, 2011)

The Illinois Department of Transportation hired Darrell Miller in 2002 as part of a bridge crew. The crew, which consisted of five employees, was responsible for a wide variety of tasks. Many of those tasks were performed at ground level, while some were performed at various heights above the ground or water. Miller had some fear of heights and there were a few jobs that he could not perform. For years, the crew worked as a team. IDOT allowed his other crew members to fill in for him on those few occasions when he could not do his assigned task. Other team members also had tasks they could not perform for various reasons and IDOT accommodated those limitations as well. In 2006, Miller was asked to do a task that he considered unsafe. He performed the task but filed a grievance. Just a few weeks later, his crew leader assigned him to a task that resulted in a panic attack. IDOT put him on sick leave. Its examiner diagnosed him with acrophobia and declared him unfit to work on the bridge crew. IDOT began treating Miller as unable to work at any height in excess of 20 feet. Miller filed a grievance and also requested an accommodation identical to that which he had enjoyed in the past. His request was denied and he was ordered to return to work. When he encountered an IDOT personnel manager, he commented to a colleague that he "would like to knock her teeth out." Miller was told to go home and was later discharged for threatening violence against another employee. After an arbitration, he returned to work but without back pay or benefits. Miller filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He alleged discrimination arising from the refusal to provide accommodation and his termination. He also alleged retaliation. Judge Stiehl (S.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to IDOT on both counts. Miller appeals.

In their opinion, Judges Posner, Rovner, and Hamilton reversed and remanded. The ADA protects only those individuals with a disability. But disability is defined in the statute as not only having a significant impairment but also being regarded as having such an impairment. A substantial limitation on being able to work qualifies as such an impairment. Since Miller did not claim to be actually impaired, his challenge was to present evidence that IDOT regarded him as substantially limited in his ability to perform a wide range of jobs. The Court noted that the regulations require consideration of several factors, including the nature and severity of the impairment, its duration, and its longer-term impact. The Court concluded that Miller presented sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find that IDOT regarded him as limited in his ability to do a substantial number of jobs. Summary judgment on the discrimination claim was improper. On the reasonable accommodation claim, the Court also found issues of fact that should have gone to the jury. Although working at heights in extreme positions is an essential element of the crew's work, the Court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that it was not an essential element of any individual crew member's work. The Court cited the history of team accommodations in the record. A reasonable juror could also find that Miller's request for an accommodation was reasonable. Finally, on the retaliation claim, the Court found that Miller presented sufficient evidence going to IDOT’s honesty to get to a jury. The Court cited an example of a similar violent outburst that was not disciplined, the agency's general hostility towards accommodations, and the ambiguity of the threat itself.