News & Insights

Seventh Circuit Upholds Summary Judgment For Employer In Ada Discrimination Case Based On Direct Threat Exception

The Seventh Circuit recently held an employer’s rescission of an employment offer upon learning the prospective employee suffered from uncontrolled seizures did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  Russell Pontinen (“Pontinen”) applied to work as a Utility Person at United States Steel Corporation’s (“USS”) Midwest Plant and received a contingent employment offer. After an investigation, USS discovered that Pontinen suffered from an uncontrolled seizure disorder that imposed work restrictions on him. The restrictions conflicted with the requirements of the position for which he applied; so, USS rescinded the employment offer. Pontinen sued for disability discrimination under the ADA, and the district court granted USS’s motion for summary judgment.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed judgment in USS’s favor because it is permissible under the ADA to require that a potential employee not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others in the workplace, even if such a requirement tends to discriminate. The employer has the burden to show the requirement is necessary to prevent a direct threat.

The Seventh Circuit agreed that whether Pontinen posed a direct threat was not in genuine dispute. Although Pontinen’s seizures were well-controlled on medication, Pontinen had stopped taking his medication without his doctor’s approval. The Utility Person position at USS involved working with and around multiple pieces of highly dangerous equipment. Given the potential catastrophic consequences of losing consciousness in this dangerous setting, the Court found that the nature and severity of the risk necessarily weighed in favor of a direct threat finding.

The Court explained that because all the factors weighed in favor of finding that there was a direct threat, it was compelled to reach that conclusion at summary judgment. While Pontinen could point to a few pieces of evidence that supported the idea that he was doing well, he could not point to evidence that created a genuine dispute of material fact regarding USS’s decision to rescind his employment offer because he constituted a threat. USS’s determination relied on appropriate evidence, was made after an individualized assessment, and revealed an uncontrolled seizure disorder that would create an intolerable risk in the workplace. As this case illustrates, employers must be mindful of complying with the ADA and protecting the health and safety of its workforce and customers.