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Mack v. Great Dane Trailers

October 22, 2002

MARK A. MACK, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
GREAT DANE TRAILERS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, CROSS-APPELLEE.



Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Terre Haute Division. No. TH 98-C-303--Larry J. McKinney, Chief Judge.

Before Bauer, Easterbrook, and Williams, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Williams, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED APRIL 8, 2002

After he was discharged from his job, plaintiff Mark Mack sued his employer, defendant Great Dane Trailers, for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12102, et seq. (ADA), and for retaliatory discharge under Indiana law.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Great Dane on Mack's state law claim, but denied summary judgment on Mack's ADA claim that Great Dane discriminated against him because it mistakenly regarded him as disabled. The jury found in Mack's favor on the ADA claim, and both parties appeal. We agree with Great Dane that, on the ADA claim, there was insufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find that Great Dane regarded Mack as substantially limited in any major life activity and that the district court erred in denying Great Dane's motion for judgment as a matter of law. We also conclude that there was insufficient evidence that would support an inference that Mack was discharged for filing for workers' compensation and therefore affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Great Dane on Mack's state law claim for retaliatory discharge.

I. BACKGROUND

Mack worked as an assistant trailer builder, which involved many tasks that required long periods of kneeling and squatting. After less than a month on the job, Mack developed pain in his leg and Great Dane sent him to see Dr. Daria Schooler. Dr. Schooler diagnosed acute right peroneal neuropathy, commonly referred to as drop foot. A month after his injury, Dr. Schooler determined that Mack could return to sedentary work if transportation to work was provided. As his condition improved, she eased the restrictions but cleared him for work only in areas of the plant that do not require the use of heavy steel-toed work boots and prohibited kneeling and squatting. These restrictions were repeated in Dr. Schooler's reports during the following months and in her handwritten report of November 2 (received by Great Dane on November 12). In a typewritten report accompanying the November 2 report, Schooler stated that Mack "may have plateaued" in his recovery, but "could potentially return to work if he had a permanent work restriction of no lifting and if a custom work boot could be manufactured. . . ." In her final report on November 30, Dr. Schooler determined that Mack had reached maximum medical improvement from his injury, and released him for a return to work with permanent restrictions of no kneeling or squatting and if he obtained the suggested custom work boot.

During this time, Mack was on workers' compensation leave and received total temporary disability benefits. Mack repeatedly asked Great Dane to return him to work and was told that there was no available work within his restrictions. Great Dane discharged Mack effective November 12, 1997, thirteen months after his disability leave began. His temporary disability benefits continued for another month. At a meeting on November 30, Great Dane managers told Mack that he had been discharged pursuant to a company policy under which an employee who is absent more than one year is terminated.

Mack filed suit alleging violations of the ADA and state law claims for wrongful termination and intentional infliction of emotional distress. On cross motions for summary judgment, the district court granted judgment in favor of Great Dane on Mack's state law claims and his claim that he was disabled under the ADA. It denied, however, Great Dane's motion as to Mack's "regarded as disabled" claim. That claim went to trial and the jury rendered a verdict in favor of Mack. The court denied Great Dane's Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law and entered judgment on the verdict.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Americans with Disabilities Act

We review the district court's denial of Great Dane's motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo. Emmel v. Coca Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago, 95 F.3d 627, 629-30 (7th Cir. 1996). We must determine "whether the evidence presented, combined with all reasonable inferences permissibly drawn therefrom, is sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed." Tapia v. City of Greenwood, 965 F.2d 336, 338 (7th Cir. 1992).

An individual is disabled within the meaning of the ADA if she has "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual." 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(A); see also Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471, 478 (1999). Mack does not contend on appeal that his impairment is substantially limiting. But the ADA also protects from discrimination individuals who are "regarded as" having a disability, see 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(C); Sutton, 527 U.S. at 489, and it was on this theory that Mack's ADA claim was submitted to the jury. To fall within the statutory definition of one "regarded as disabled," the plaintiff must show that:

(1) a covered entity mistakenly believes that a person has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or ...


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