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Employee’s ADA Claim Based on Perceived Impact of Opioids Goes Forward

Graham Packaging Company (“Graham”) recruited Raymond Hartmann, an experienced machine and forklift operator, to interview for a position as a production specialist. The position required Hartmann to operate forklifts and other machinery. During the interview, William Russell (“Russell”), a manager for Graham, told Hartmann the company would like him to begin work soon, provided he passed a physical and drug test. Hartmann shared a letter from his doctor during the interview laying out medications he took for his pinched nerve. The doctor asserted in the letter that Hartmann “denied any impairment” from his medications and “no concerns” had been raised over his ability to perform his work duties while medicated. After some discussion within the organization where decision-makers expressed concerns about Hartmann’s ability to perform the position, they informed Hartmann that the company would not be hiring him.

Hartmann brought an action against Graham for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. After analyzing the facts before it, the court applied the framework applicable to claims by individuals “regarded as” disabled. Graham argued the company could not be liable for discrimination because its employment decision was based on the impact of Hartmann’s medications, not on a perceived disability. The court rejected this argument, finding that the “[N]egative side effects of medicine or other medical treatment can constitute an impairment for the purposes of the ADA.”

Hartmann had to show that he was “otherwise qualified” for the position, i.e., he could perform the essential functions of the position with or without accommodation. Hartmann did not request any accommodation. Hartmann previously worked in the same type of position while medicated with no known safety incidents. Graham argued Hartmann’s opioid use made him a risk to the “health and safety” of others. Individuals posing risks to the health and safety of others are not “qualified” under the statute. However, the ADA requires an “individualized inquiry” to assess the risk. Graham had not established in its motion that it had engaged in an individualized assessment of Hartmann’s medication use.