Listen to the Employee, Not Just the Doctor, Regarding the Employee’s Disability


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected an employer’s assertion that the employee was not disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act because she had been cleared by her doctor to return to work without restrictions, where the employee still complained of physical limitations.

In Rowlands v. United Parcel Service, the employee sued her employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failure to accommodate her disability, among other things. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that the employee was not disabled since she had been cleared to work without restrictions following her multiple knee surgeries. However, the employee had informed her employer that her knee injuries still substantially interfered with her ability to engage in a number of major life activities, including walking, standing, squatting and kneeling, which was sufficient to raise the possibility of a disability.

The court noted that, “it does not follow that [the employee] did not have a disability because her doctor had cleared her to return to work without restrictions.” The employer did not request a doctor’s note to verify her condition, although it could have done so. It failed to engage in the interactive process. Thus, the court refused to dismiss the employee’s claim, noting questions of fact remained about whether the employee actually had a disability and to what extent she required accommodation. This case warns employers to be careful to take into account not only what the doctor says, but also what the employee says – and if it is different than what the doctor says, follow up with the doctor to get more information.