Darrell Lynn Miller worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation from 2002 to 2007. Miller was assigned to a six-member bridge-maintenance crew that worked out of Dongola, Illinois, at the southern tip of the state.
From the beginning of his employment, Miller was fearful of heights and had trouble performing certain tasks, such as walking on bridge beams. However, Miller was still able to perform many duties, including snow removal and grounds-keeping, repairing and maintaining equipment, spreading gravel and asphalt, directing traffic, and even performing work in a hydraulically lifted “snooper bucket” at heights of up to 80 feet. For most of Miller’s employment, his team accommodated his fear by simply switch tasks with him so he wouldn’t need to perform those duties that triggered his acrophobia. Likewise, other employees accommodated each others’ limitations. For instance, one person with allergies was not required to mow grass or spray bridges.
However, in March 2006, Miller was assigned two tasks that triggered his fear. On March 10, 2006, Miller was directed to nail plywood sheets to the underside of a bridge, a task that required him to go up in a snooper bucket and then unhook his lifeline. Miller completed the job, but filed a grievance claiming that the task was unsafe. Then, on March 23, 2006, Miller was assigned to change light bulbs on a bridge over the Mississippi River, a task which required Miller to climb over the edge of the bridge above the water. Miller had a panic attack and was hospitalized.
IDOT placed Miller on sick leave and ordered him to submit to a fitness-for-duty examination. IDOT’s doctor determined Miller was unfit for duty. Miller filed a grievance and a request for accommodation, which he supported with another evaluation from an independent doctor who found he could perform most of the job’s duties. IDOT denied the request in January 2007, but nonetheless, Miller was ordered back to work in May 2007. On his first day back, he had a dispute with a co-worker. In June, he was terminated for allegedly threatening her.
Miller sued, alleging disability discrimination and retaliation. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois (Stiehl, J.) entered summary judgment for IDOT, finding that Miller’s requested accommodation (shuffling work duties among team members) was unreasonable, that he was incapable of performing the essential functions of his job, and that Miller had not shown that IDOT’s reason for terminating him was a pretext for discrimination.
On May 10, 2011, the Seventh Circuit reversed that decision, finding that Miller had presented sufficient evidence that IDOT regarded him as disabled, that he was able to perform the essential functions of his job, his accommodation request was reasonable, and there were fact disputes about the termination.
“After … Miller was formally diagnosed with acrophobia, IDOT immediately precluded him from performing any task required of the bridge crew, even tasks that could be performed from the ground,” the court wrote. “IDOT forced him on non-occupational disability leave and exaggerated the relatively modest effects of the acrophobia. Even after two psychiatrists cleared him for work without any significant restrictions, IDOT continued to preclude Miller from returning to any and all tasks performed by the bridge crew.” The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded.
The case is: Darrell Lynn Miller v. Illinois Department of Transportation, 09-3143.
Seventh Circuit Judge David F. Hamilton authored the opinion. Judges Posner, Hamilton and Rovner were on the panel. The decision reverses the ruling of Judge William D. Stiehl of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.