In a case that adds to a split among federal appellate courts, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a company’s insistence on an employee being “100% healed” after a medical leave does not necessarily support the employee’s legal claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Powers v. USF Holland, Inc., 7th Cir., No. 10-2363, December 15, 2011.

Keith Powers, a truck driver for USF Holland, Inc., injured his back in a work-related incident. After returning from a workers’ compensation leave, Powers returned to his job as a long-haul driver, and worked successfully in that position for two years. Because his wife was expecting a child, Powers asked to be transferred to a city driver route, which would keep him closer to home. However, unlike the long-haul job, the city route included frequent entering and exiting of the truck cab, and loadings and unloadings of the truck with a forklift. After the switch to city driver, Powers again began to have problems with his back and asked to transfer back to long hauls. That request was denied on the basis that the collective bargaining agreement did not allow for more than one job transfer within a one-year period.

Powers took a medical leave, after which he requested to return to work with certain restrictions that would limit him to long-haul driving, including limited dock work and loading and unloading. USF informed him that he could not return to work until he submitted a full medical release containing no work restrictions.

Powers filed a lawsuit claiming that by enforcing its “100% healed” policy, USF had discriminated against him because of his disability. The district court dismissed Powers’ ADA claims, holding that because Powers was capable of long-haul driving, he was not substantially limited in the major life activity of working. Therefore, Powers was not actually disabled within the meaning of the ADA, which requires a “substantial limitation in a major life activity,” and the 100% healed rule was not impermissibly applied to him.

On appeal to the Seventh Circuit, Powers argued that he was disabled because USF regarded him as disabled, which also would bring him under the protections of the ADA. Under the ADA’s “regarded as” prong, an employer must believe (rightly or wrongly) that the employee has a medical impairment that substantially limits him from some major life activity. In addition to agreeing with the lower court’s assessment that Powers’ impairment did not rise to the level of a substantial limitation under the ADA – that is, Powers was not actually disabled – the Seventh Circuit held that because USF did not view Powers as unable to work for other employers, USF did not regard him as substantially limited in the major life activity of working, and that therefore, application of the company’s “100% healed” policy to Powers did not violate the ADA.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999), held that “an employer is free to decide that physical characteristics or medical conditions that do not rise to the level of an impairment – such as one’s height, build, or singing voice – are preferable to others, just as it is free to decide that some limiting, but not substantially limiting, impairments make individuals less than ideally suited for a job.” (In Sutton, two visually impaired pilots who were not chosen for positions as “global airline pilots” were not disabled, because they were qualified and able to hold numerous other positions within the aviation industry.) Therefore, a particular impairment could disqualify an individual for a specific job, so long as that impairment did not substantially limit the individual from working for other employers in a class of jobs or from a broad range of jobs.

While this holding seems to support the application of a “100% healed” policy, employers who deal with return-to-work requests may also have to review state workers compensation laws, Family and Medical Leave Act issues, and requests for accommodations, and should not assume that the application of a “100% healed” policy will avoid all problems associated with medical impairments.