Blind World Magazine

Blind Employee is Not Protected by the A D A.

October 14, 2005.
HR Executive, USA.

Ruling unanimously, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the performance- and behavior-based termination of a blind employee from the Durand, Wis.-based Eau Galle Cheese Factory who had claimed his firing violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the case of Paul S. Hammel vs. Eau Galle Cheese Factory, the appeals court upheld the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin's decision that the plaintiff-although disabled within the meaning of the ADA-was not protected by the act in this instance. The ADA only provides shelter for "those who can perform the essential functions of their job with or without reasonable accommodations."

Paul Hammel-who suffers from congenital glaucoma in both eyes and has been declared legally blind-was hired by Eau Galle on a trial basis as a general laborer and began his employment on Jan. 8, 2000. Discharged three weeks later, he subsequently sued the company, claiming he was unlawfully terminated on the basis of his disability.

"We believe Eau Galle fired Mr. Hammel because of the prejudices or biases it had about blind individuals and unfounded safety concerns," says Sonia Miller-Van Oort, of Minneapolis-based law firm Flynn, Gaskins & Bennett, who represented Hammel in the case.

According to court documents, Hammel was told by his supervisor he was fired because of his "limited vision and the fact that it interfered to some extent with his work and caused [management] concern for his safety and the safety of his co-workers."

However, EGC also claimed Hammel had problems performing various duties of his job, such as properly turning or flipping cheese wheels during the molding process and failing to stamp each wheel with a production date. In addition, one of his supervisors, John Anibas, observed that Hammel "worked too slowly at his tasks to keep up with the speed of [the] cheese production" line, according to court records.

Among Eau Galle's other allegations regarding Hammel were his poor attitude toward work, insubordinate behavior and a lack of concern for safety. The company also maintained he ignored admonitions to stop making personal phone calls on company time, took unauthorized breaks to smoke cigarettes, put his hands on top of and inside a grinding machine while operating it, and drove "an electrically powered pallet jack bearing a pallet of finished cheese wheels into the wall, causing the wheels of cheese to fall off."

Hammel's supervisors, according to court documents, "initially used remedial measures in an attempt to address [Hammel's] mounting performance problems," warning him to be more careful, stop taking unauthorized breaks and speed up or slow down as certain tasks dictated.

In July 2002, Hammel responded to his firing by filing suit under the ADA, alleging EGC intentionally discriminated against him. "The employer believed Mr. Hammel could not safely perform his duties, but failed to discuss those concerns with him before termination," says Miller-Van Oort.

The court, although ruling that Hammel was fired due to his inability to perform the fundamental functions of his job, noted that Eau Galle should have given him the real reasons for his discharge.

Eau Galle did not return a phone call seeking comment on the case.

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