Zamboni Driver’s Disability Claim Gets Icy Reception in Court

  • Jul 24, 2019
  • ADA
  • Dennis J. Merley

A maintenance director at a recreational ice rink claimed that the reasons given for his termination from employment were a pretext for disability discrimination.  A federal Appeals Court told him to chill out.

James Graham, Jr., worked as head mechanic and maintenance supervisor for Arctic Zone Iceplex, an ice rink and recreational facility in Westfield, IN.  His duties included maintaining the ice rink driving the Zamboni, a vehicle that smooths the surface of the ice.

Employee is Skating on Thin Ice

Graham was not exactly employee-of-the-month material.  He generated complaints from customers and co-workers about his attitude, and he often failed to complete his job tasks in a timely manner.  However, Arctic Zone never issued him any disciplinary notices for his behavior or job performance.

At one point, Graham took a 3 month leave of absence due to a job-related injury.  He returned with various medical restrictions, including the need to work sitting down.  In response, Arctic Zone assigned him to perform skate sharpening, a job which they believed could be performed entirely while sitting down.  Graham disagreed and felt that this job was outside of his medical restrictions but he but never informed the company.  When his restrictions were lifted, Graham was returned to his regular position but assigned to the evening shift.  Arctic Zone said he was needed during the evening due to seasonal needs but Graham viewed it as a demotion.

A few months later, Graham crashed the Zamboni, producing “over two feet of jagged plastic” sticking out into the ice rink.  Arctic Zone thereupon terminated Graham citing the following reasons:

  • poor attitude  about  his  change in position;
  • poor attitude toward customers;
  • not completing his work on time;
  • insubordination; and
  • the Zamboni accident, which threatened customer safety and cost revenue while the rink was repaired.

Accommodation Claim Gets a Cold Shoulder

Graham sued in federal court under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that Arctic Zone failed to accommodate his disability and discriminated against him.   The lower court granted Arctic Zone’s motion for early dismissal and Graham appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

On the accommodation claim, Graham contended that his assignment to skate sharpening was inadequate because the job could not be performed sitting down as his restriction required.  The court disagreed, explaining that accommodation requires an interactive process between the employee and employer.  Part of that process demands that the employee provide sufficient information to the employer to allow them to ascertain the appropriate accommodation.  An employer cannot be held liable for failure to accommodate if the employee fails to comply with this obligation.

In this case, Graham never informed Arctic Zone that he felt skate sharpening required him to stand.  The court deemed this a “textbook example” of failing to give the employer sufficient information to let them consider possible accommodation.  They therefore affirmed the lower court’s dismissal the failure-to-accommodate claim.

Discrimination Claim Is Frozen Out

As for the discrimination claim, the court explained that since Arctic Zone had articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the termination, Graham had to show that these reasons were pretextual. In this regard, the court observed that the issue is not whether the employer’s stated reasons were wrong or unfair but rather, whether the employer “honestly believed” in the reasons offered for the termination.

Graham claimed that all of the behavioral and performance-related reasons in the termination notice had to be pretextual because he never received any prior disciplinary actions for them.  The court countered, however, that the company’s “decision to let something slide without a formal response does not mean that it went unnoticed or untallied.”  An employer does not forfeit the right to address wrongdoing now just because they failed to do so earlier. The court concluded that in light of the evidence of Graham’s wrongdoing, a reasonable jury could not conclude that Arctic Zone was lying about the reasons for termination simply because they had not raised these issues previously.

Graham then attacked the company’s reliance on the Zamboni accident by noting that Arctic Zone overstated the significance of the matter – it created only minor damage.  In addition, he argued that a non-disabled employee had a similar, but much more costly accident but was not terminated.   The court responded that the other accident did not result in a hazard to their customers while Graham’s incident left the rink unusable until it was repaired.  Moreover, the employee in question had been an excellent performer without any previous incidents in his work record.  As such, the two employees were not similarly situated enough to permit a jury to conclude that the reasons offered by Arctic Zone for the more serious consequences handed down to Graham were pretextual for disability discrimination.

Bottom Line

This is an interesting decision that overlooks the lack of supportive documentation and still gives the employer the win.   This is probably attributable to the fact that the employee never offered any evidence of a wrongful motive on the employer’s part.  He just argued that the employer’s evidence was not as strong as it could be. Even if that was true, the court still found the employer’s evidence to be sufficiently persuasive.

Obviously, this is not a signal to stop documenting employee performance or to show up in court without solid proof of your lawful decision-making.  Instead, this case simply shows that good decisions made for the right reasons can still carry the day even if all the i’s aren’t dotted and the t’s aren’t crossed.