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Afraid of Heights? 7th Circuit Says You May Have ADA Lawsuit

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on June 07, 2011 4:17 PM

Is the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals saying that fear of heights is a disability, under the Americans With Disabilities Act?

In a May 10th decision, the 7th Circuit is certainly not ruling out that possibility in the case of an acrophobic bridge worker who brought an ADA lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Transportation.

According to Overlawyered, the Seventh Circuit said a bridge worker with fear of heights can proceed with his suit contending the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) should have done more to accommodate his wish to work only on those bridge maintenance tasks that did not leave him in an overly exposed position.

Okay. Before acrophobics rush to the EEOC with their ADA lawsuits, let's just set the record straight here; this lawsuit hasn't yet been decided on the merits. This was a summary judgment motion that was reversed. The district court, as it turns out, granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of IDOT. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals then came along and reversed, citing that the acrophobic bridge worker "had presented evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that IDOT regarded him as disabled because of his fear of heights." The 7th Circuit also noted that there existed genuine issues of material fact. (Remember that summary judgment can only be granted if there are no triable issues of fact.)

See for yourself if triable issues of fact exist:

Darrell Miller was hired as a bridge worker but came to realize shortly into his job that he was afraid of heights. IDOT did make accommodations for him and allowed other team members to handle certain tasks for him.

Then came the day when Miller was asked to do a task that was beyond his tolerance threshold. Only this time, he didn't complete the task and had a panic attack and went to the hospital. IDOT's own examiner concluded that Miller was unfit to work as a highway worker and told Miller that he needed to request non-occupational disability status otherwise he would "get nothing."

Miller filed a grievance challenging this determination and had his own psychiatrist weigh in.

Here's the punch line: He requested accommodations, to which the personnel manager said to him "I'll tell you right now, we don't grant requests." He went back to work eventually, without accommodation. When he encountered the personnel manager upon his return, he was heard saying to another coworker: "I have never hit a woman but sometimes I would like to knock her teeth out."

Needless to say, he was fired for "making threats." He brought his ADA lawsuit and additionally, a retaliation lawsuit.

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