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Pamela S. Hanson v. Caterpillar

August 3, 2012


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 09 CV 4809--James B. Zagel, Judge.

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


Before KANNE, ROVNER, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

Pamela Hanson brought this action alleging that her employer, Caterpillar, Inc., fired her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. The district court granted summary judgment for Caterpillar, reasoning that Hanson was not a "qualified individual with a disability" as defined by the ADA. We affirm.


On October 11, 2004, Caterpillar hired Pamela Hanson as a supplemental assembler for its manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois. Under the plant's collective bar- gaining agreement, supplemental employees work forty hours per week on a temporary but indefinite basis. They are not entitled to seniority rights and benefits in the same way as full-time employees. Practically speaking, this means that supplemental employees are last in line for job reassignments, which are generally awarded based on seniority. As an assembler on the 980-tractor line, Hanson attached steering shafts, hydraulic hoses, toolboxes, and side panels to the tractor cab. These tasks required Hanson to climb onto the tractor, enter and exit tight spaces, turn her head and neck from side-to- side, and carry and install equipment weighing between five and fifteen pounds. Hanson conceded that some of these tasks were physically demanding.

Just two weeks into her stint as an assembler, Hanson injured her neck while installing a hydraulic hose. Hanson did not seek medical attention nor did she im- mediately report her injury to plant management. Rather, Hanson claims that a union representative cau- tioned that reporting her injury to a supervisor could result in termination. Despite the warning, Hanson finally disclosed her injury to management on Decem- ber 3, 2004, five weeks after the injury. That same day, Hanson visited Dr. William Roggenkamp, the com- pany's full-time physician. During the examination, Dr. Roggenkamp ordered x-rays, which revealed marked spurring between her fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae and arthritis in the front of her neck. She was then given over-the-counter pain medicine, referred to onsite physical therapy, and placed on the following medical restrictions: (1) no lifting over ten pounds; (2) no pushing or pulling over ten pounds with either arm; (3) no rotating or bending her neck; and (4) no overhead work. Because of these restrictions, both Al Kitterman, Hanson's supervisor, and Dee Sheffer, Move Coordinator,*fn1 agreed to temporarily place Hanson on light-duty work, filing papers in the location of the plant known as "the cage." Hanson apparently performed this work without pain.

Hanson visited Dr. Roggenkamp again on December 6 and 7. Although Hanson suggested that she was feeling better, Dr. Roggenkamp noted that her neck pain persisted when she bent forward to read and at night. Based on this evaluation, Dr. Roggenkamp diagnosed Hanson with acute cervical syndrome with significant calcification between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. He then referred Hanson to Dr. Thomas McGivney, a local spine specialist. On December 9, Dr. McGivney examined Hanson and recommended a regimen of physical therapy and a set of slightly less onerous medical restrictions than those imposed by Dr. Rog- genkamp (the two differences being that Hanson was restricted from lifting more than twenty pounds and she was not restricted from rotating or bending her neck). Despite learning of Dr. McGivney's relaxed re- strictions, Dr. Roggenkamp nonetheless kept his restric- tions in place after noting only limited improvement during subsequent examinations on December 13, 21, and January 3.

On January 4, Hanson returned to Dr. McGivney's office. Dr. McGivney reaffirmed the medical restrictions he had previously suggested. The next day, Dr. Rog- genkamp, after conferring with Dr. McGivney, agreed to reduce Hanson's restrictions such that she was now only restricted from lifting anything heavier than twenty pounds.

Hanson's temporary position in "the cage" ended, and on January 19, she was transferred to a sub-assembly group responsible for putting bolts in washers and screws inside of caps. The parties dispute whether this new position was temporary. Sometime after January 24,

Hanson returned to the 980-tractor assembly line in a different and less demanding position than which she was initially hired. Again, the parties dispute whether this position was temporary. In the meantime, Hanson continued periodic treatment with Dr. Roggenkamp, but the only substantive change during those visits was Dr. Roggenkamp's decision to restrict Hanson from working more than forty hours per week.

At a February 7 appointment, Dr. Roggenkamp noted Hanson's improved condition, but he was troubled by her inability to fully tip her head forward and backward. Dr. Roggenkamp's observations were similar to those recently made by Dr. McGivney. Be- cause Hanson had now been symptomatic for four months, Dr. Roggenkamp believed that she would be unable to return to regular assembly work. Dr. Roggenkamp then advised Hanson that she could no longer receive physical-therapy treatment at Cater- pillar because her condition was no longer considered work-related. Instead, Dr. Roggenkamp recommended Hanson consult Rezin Orthopedics for further treat- ment. Later that day, Dr. Roggenkamp sent an email to plant management, stating that Hanson's progress had plateaued and that her medical restrictions would continue indefinitely. After considering Dr. Roggenkamp's email, Labor Relations Representative Douglas Howell terminated Hanson's employment on February 10, 2005. Howell concluded that Hanson was unable to perform the assembly position for which she was hired within her medical restrictions, and similarly, there were no permanent positions available within her restrictions. The company left open the possibility for Hanson's return if a suitable position became available.

On February 23, Dr. Kevin Draxinger of Rezin Orthope- dics examined Hanson. Although Dr. Draxinger be- lieved that Hanson risked a herniated disk and other associated pain if she continued working, he otherwise believed that she could return to work without restric- tion. Even after learning of Dr. Draxinger's conclusion at a March 9 appointment, Dr. Roggenkamp noted her continued limitation in bending her neck forward. Dr. Roggenkamp then extended Hanson's medical re- strictions indefinitely. On April 20, Hanson sought yet another opinion. Dr. Alexander Ghanayem examined Hanson and determined that she was fit to resume working.

After obtaining an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission right-to-sue letter, Hanson filed suit against Caterpillar on August 6, 2009, alleging that the company unlawfully terminated her in violation of the ADA. Following discovery, the district court granted summary judgment for Caterpillar, reasoning that Hanson ...

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