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04/10/87 Caterpillar, Inc., v. the Human Rights

April 10, 1987

CATERPILLAR, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT

v.

THE HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, THIRD DISTRICT

506 N.E.2d 1029, 154 Ill. App. 3d 424, 107 Ill. Dec. 138 1987.IL.479

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Tazewell County; the Hon. Donald C. Courson, Judge, presiding.

APPELLATE Judges:

JUSTICE HEIPLE delivered the opinion of the court. STOUDER and WOMBACHER, JJ., concur.

DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE HEIPLE

Caterpillar, Inc. (Caterpillar), appeals from an order of the circuit court of Tazewell County which denied Caterpillar's motion for summary judgment and affirmed a decision of the Illinois Human Rights Commission (Commission) in its entirety. Caterpillar also appeals from the order and decision of the Commission which was affirmed by the court below. We reverse.

Madeline Burwell (Burwell) was hired by Caterpillar on September 25, 1978, as a radial drill operator. Burwell, like other Caterpillar employees, was placed on 30 days' probation when she was hired. She cut her finger while operating the radial drill on September 28, 1978, but continued to work as a drill operator through October 2. On October 3, because Burwell's finger had become infected and irritated by the liquid coolant used in operating the drill, the plant physician restricted her to dry work for nine shifts. Because of the medical restrictions, Burwell was unable to operate the radial drill and was temporarily assigned to a variety of other jobs for the next several shifts. Burwell also began attending classes sponsored by Caterpillar to train her as a radial drill operator.

On October 16, 1978, while Burwell was still unable to return to the radial drill, she was assigned to a welder's helper job which required her to operate a large air buffer. She had difficulty operating the unwieldy machine because of her injured finger, and after three or four hours, Burwell complained of sharp pain in her right elbow and was unable to continue to perform the work. She was relieved of those duties and was given a whirlpool treatment at the plant's first aid station. Because of the problem with her elbow, she was examined by the plant physician at the beginning of her next shift. At that time, Burwell was suffering from lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, and the plant physician imposed a work restriction of no tight grasping with her right hand for one year. This restriction meant that it would be impossible for Burwell to return to her job as a radial drill operator for at least one year.

For the remainder of that shift and for the next, Burwell replaced a vacationing employee and operated a hand truck, a small forklift with hand and foot pedals. On October 19, 1978, approximately 3 1/2 weeks after she was hired, her employment with Caterpillar was terminated. On Burwell's separation notice, which was completed by a factory superintendent, Burwell was described as "unsuitable for factory work." However, the superintendent's comments on the separation notice suggested that Burwell's medical restriction was a primary factor in the decision to fire her. The notice further indicated that Burwell was never to be rehired.

Burwell filed a charge of unfair employment practices with the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission . She alleged that Caterpillar discriminatorily terminated her employment because of her handicap, tennis elbow, in violation of section 3(a) of the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Act (the Act) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, pars. 851 through 867). Following an investigation, the FEPC issued an administrative complaint against Caterpillar, alleging that Caterpillar discriminated against Burwell when it fired her because of her "temporary physical handicap."

Several procedural matters which need not be detailed here were disposed of and a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Sandra Jones on September 20 and 21, 1983. In her recommended order and decision, Judge Jones determined that Burwell's tennis elbow was a handicap and that Caterpillar discriminated against Burwell by terminating her because of her handicap when there were other jobs available at Caterpillar which she could have performed. The administrative law Judge ordered Caterpillar to pay Burwell lost wages, to make Burwell whole as to all lost benefits and seniority status, and to pay attorney fees and costs of over $12,000. A panel of the Illinois Human Rights Commission affirmed Judge Jones' recommended order and decision on May 28, 1985. Caterpillar then sought administrative review in the circuit court and later filed a motion for summary judgment. The circuit court denied the motion for summary judgment and affirmed the decision of the Commission. Caterpillar appeals.

On appeal to this court, Caterpillar argues that Burwell's tennis elbow was not a handicap within the meaning of the Act; that even if Burwell were considered handicapped, she was not protected under the Act because the handicap was related to her ability to perform her job; and that even if Caterpillar had a duty to reasonably accommodate Burwell's alleged handicap, that duty did not extend to offering her jobs other than the one she was hired to fill.

Although the Fair Employment Practices Act was replaced by the Illinois Human Rights Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 68, par. 1-101 et seq.) in 1980, it was in force when the alleged discrimination occurred. The Illinois Human Rights Commission replaced the FEPC and was authorized to ...


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