CHICAGO (CN) - A former meat-packing factory worker who was fired after hip-replacement surgery left her unable to perform her job duties cannot pursue claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Rose Packing Co. operates a meat-packing plant on Chicago's South Side. The factory employs several hundred general laborers, all members of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, who must be able to perform a variety of functions as part of their job.
Laborers are rotated through a variety of meat-packing tasks to compensate for workload fluctuations and to minimize the risks posed by repetitive-motion workplace injuries.
Company policy prohibited individuals who suffered from non-work-related injuries from returning to work without a full medical release from their medical provider.
Teresa Kotwica began working as a general laborer at Rose Packing in 1996. In 2005, Kotwica took 12 weeks to undergo and recuperate from a total hip replacement.
But when she returned after those 12 weeks, she failed to follow guidance from Rose Packing's in-house nurse that she do so without any medical restrictions.
Kotwica's work authorization letter indicated that she would be unable to perform a number of physical activities, including squatting, crawling, climbing or lifting more than 25 pounds.
Because her authorization letter did not comply with Rose Packing's policy, the company requested an alternative, in-house assessment of her capabilities. The company fired her after a second assessment confirmed that Kotwica could not lift 50 pounds, as required to fulfill the duties of general laborer.
Kotwica sued Rose Packing for ADA violations, saying that her post-surgery restrictions would not have prevented her from performing her job duties, and that the company failed to meet its reasonable accommodation obligation under the act. An Illinois federal judge granted summary judgment for Rose Packing, and the 7th Circuit affirmed on Tuesday.
Kotwica's inability to continue her old job was not enough to trigger ADA protection, a three-judge appellate panel ruled.
"Not only did Kotwica's evidence fail to establish [her inability to work], but other evidence before the court established that the opposite was true," Judge Richard Cudahy wrote for the court.
Following surgery, Kotwica claimed she is in better physical condition and has worked as a receptionist, office inspector and quality inspector for other employers.
"ADA does not impose an obligation on employers to create a new position, which contains a subset of the duties performed by those in an existing position, for individuals with permanent impairments," Cudahy wrote.
Rose Packing has since amended its return-to-work policy, eliminating the distinction between personal and work-related injuries and stating that it will attempt to accommodate all employees' injury-related restrictions.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.