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'Claw Hand' Not a Disability Under ADA

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

A federal appeals court ruled that a man with a claw hand, denied a job on a locomotive, was not disabled because he could do other jobs.

The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a dismissal against the man, who sued for disability discrimination after a railroad company retracted a job offer because of his disfigured hand. The employer was not liable under the Americans With Disabilities Act because it considered him able to perform other jobs, the court said.

"The ADA protects disabled workers from discrimination.," Judge Gregory A. Phillips wrote for the court in Duty v. BNSF Railway Company. "But it limits its protection by recognizing that not all impairments are disabilities."

Lacked Grip Strength

Kent Duty had applied for work as a locomotive electrician with BNSF Railway Company. The company offered him the position, pending a background check and medical-history questionnaire.

Duty revealed that he had a serious car accident decades earlier that left him with nerve and muscle damage that caused his right hand to contract into a "claw hand." Even after years of therapy, he lacked grip strength and could not lift more than five pounds with his right hand.

A company doctor examined Duty and determined he could not safely perform the job as a locomotive electrician. Among other concerns, the doctor said Duty could not support his body weight with one hand when climbing on and off trains.

Duty filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which later joined him in a federal complaint against the railway company.

"Major Life Activity"

A trial judge dismissed the case on a motion for summary judgment, and the appeals court affirmed. The Tenth Circuit panel noted that the company doctor reported another employee lost both legs falling off a train.

The court focused on Duty's claim that he was disabled because the employer mistakenly believed he was substantially limited in performing the "major life activity" of working. The appellate panel rejected the argument.

After withdrawing its offer for locomotive electrician, the company told Duty he could apply for a job as a dispatcher, yard master, or clerk. The court said the offer to apply for other positions rebutted his claim.

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