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“Regarded As” Disability Claim Against Boeing Proceeds

Katrina Hartley applied for a job with Boeing as a firefighter/emergency medical technician. She was offered the position provided she met certain pre-employment requirements which included a medical screening. Hartley disclosed during the screening that she had previously been diagnosed with herniated discs. She submitted a note from her physician indicating that she had no restrictions on her ability to do the job. A review of her medical records revealed that she had significant treatment from a chiropractor for her back as recently as the time of her job application. She had pain in her back that increased with movement; she also had a recent epidural shot for pain management. Boeing’s medical screener called her exam “unremarkable” but also stated that he was concerned about her medical history. Boeing withdrew its offer of employment, asserting that Hartley was “not medically qualified.”

Boeing moved to dismiss Hartley’s subsequent lawsuit alleging disability discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants who are qualified for a position because of a disability. Hartley did not argue she was disabled, rather she asserted that Boeing “regarded her” as disabled because of her back injuries. The definition of a disability under the “regarded as” prong is broader than the definition of an actual disability, according to the federal district court. Because Boeing seemingly considered Hartley’s back problem something that would disqualify her from the position, Hartley was “regarded as” disabled and protected under the ADA.

Hartley provided sufficient information to reflect that she was qualified for the position. Boeing offered her the job, and her doctor stated that she could perform the position without an accommodation. Boeing argued that a review of the records and its own physician’s concern showed she was not able to perform the essential functions of the position. The district court rejected this argument, concluding that a jury could view Boeing’s decision as based on the “myths, fears, stereotypes with respect to the disabled” that the “regarded as” standard was created to prevent. Ultimately, it was up to a jury to determine whether Boeing appropriately concluded that Hartley’s back issues were a “direct threat” to patients because of the physical job requirements or whether it was a pretext for not hiring her based on a perceived disability.