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Cochrum v. Old Ben Coal Company

December 17, 1996






Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

No. 94 C 4204

Before CUDAHY, MANION, ROVNER, Circuit Judges.

MANION, Circuit Judge.

Philip M. Frazier, Magistrate Judge.



Kenneth Cochrum was a roof bolter in a coal mine owned by Old Ben Coal Company. A work-related shoulder injury required surgery and several months of paid disability while he recovered. When he returned to work he reinjured the shoulder, resulting in many more months of recuperation. Although the company doctor finally released him from work without restrictions, Cochrum's personal doctor recommended certain restrictions to him that limited his ability to function as a roof bolter. Although he showed up for work, he refused to resume his position as a roof bolter due to his personal doctor's restrictions. Because that was the only job open for him, the company suspended him. Cochrum filed suit in federal court complaining that Old Ben discriminated against him because of his shoulder disability and refused to reasonably accommodate him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA" or "the Act"), 42 U.S.C. sec. 12101 et seq. The district court concluded that the miner's shoulder injury did not render him disabled under the ADA and granted the mine summary judgment. Although we conclude a factual dispute exists as to whether the miner is disabled, we nevertheless conclude he cannot perform the duties of his job in the mine and that no reasonable accommodations would have allowed him to do so. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's judgment for Old Ben.


Kenneth Cochrum has worked for Old Ben Coal Company since 1978. In the early 1990's he worked as a roof bolter. After a machine cuts and removes coal from a mine shaft, a roof bolter removes any loose rock or coal from the shaft's ceiling with a pry bar to ensure the roof is solid. Then he uses a hydraulic machine to drill holes in a specific pattern in the roof of the mine. Next he assembles a 6 to 8 foot long "bolt" and with the help of a machine, bends the bolt and inserts it into the hole. He then torques the bolt with a wrench to tighten it. Roof bolters also lift materials, load machines, move electrical and water lines, shovel coal onto conveyor belts, and generally maintain the coal mining area.

While at work in 1989 Cochrum injured his left shoulder. After surgery he returned to work. In December 1991, he again injured his left shoulder and arm at work. He applied for and was granted disability benefits. Four months later, Old Ben's doctor examined him and released him to return to work. Despite this release, Cochrum remained on paid disability and underwent arthroscopic surgery on the shoulder in April 1992. He returned to work in late May 1992. Four days later, on June 1, he reinjured the shoulder picking up a waterline. He continued to work however until June 30, 1992, when he asked to be taken to the hospital for care of his shoulder. He remained off work following this injury for a number of months.

Old Ben's doctor examined Cochrum in November 1992 and found "no detectable abnormality of his shoulder." After further exams in January and March 1993, Old Ben's doctor released him to return to work without restrictions. When Old Ben asked Cochrum to report to work, he responded that he was not yet ready. Cochrum contacted his personal doctor, who released him to work but with permanent restrictions of no overhead or heavy lifting and no pushing or pulling out from his body. Cochrum admits these restrictions prevented him from fulfilling the job duties of a roof bolter.

On April 29, 1993, Cochrum's supervisor notified him that because he had been released to return to work without restrictions by the company's doctor, he should do so. If he did not, he would be considered absent without excuse. Cochrum reported to work the same day and was told to resume his position as a roof bolter. He refused, citing his doctor's restrictions. On April 30, and again on May 1 and 3, the same events transpired. On May 5, 1993, Old Ben suspended Cochrum without intent to discharge him for these four absences from work.

Five days later, Cochrum's union, the United Mine Workers, went on strike. The strike continued until December 1993, when Old Ben laid off Cochrum and 91 other employees for economic reasons. Following the layoffs, Old Ben shut down Mine No. 25 where Cochrum had worked. Old Ben has no plans to reopen it. There is no job and no mine to which Cochrum can return. He can neither be reinstated nor can he receive back pay for his time on strike or the time he was laid off.

In October 1994 Cochrum sued Old Ben in federal court alleging Old Ben discriminated against him in violation of the ADA. Cochrum claimed he suffered a disability while working for Old Ben and that he requested a reasonable accommodation--a job within the permanent restrictions given by his doctor. Because the mine did not comply with this request, he charged that the mine discriminated against him by suspending him for unexcused ...

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