Wernick v. Federal Reserve Bank of New York: Federal Court Finds Employee With Back Condition Not Entitled to Protection Under ADA

In Wernick v. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the district court found that the plaintiff, who had a disabling back condition, was impaired, but that her impairment did not "substantially limit one or more of her major life activities." Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment to the defendant.

Wernick worked at the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB) and suffered from a disabling medical condition (bilateral bursitis with cervical and lumbar spasms). In July 1992, she took a medical leave of absence. Her physician said she could return to work, provided that FRB made reasonable accommodations to her disability. The suggested accommodations included (a) no prolonged sitting without sufficient opportunity to be ambulatory; (b) use of ergonomic furniture; and (c) not being assigned to her former supervisor who had devalued her work.

In February 1993, Wernick was discharged by FRB. She sued, alleging that FRB refused to make reasonable accommodations and ordered her to return to work or be terminated. The parties did not dispute FRB's willingness to provide an opportunity to move around and stretch or that they would provide the requested ergonomic furniture. The only contested issue involved FRB's failure to transfer Wernick away from abusive supervision. The district court reviewed summary judgment motions by both parties.

The district court noted that to state a claim under the ADA, Wernick must show that: (1) she was a disabled person under the ADA; (2) she was otherwise qualified to perform her job; and (3) she was discharged due to her disability. The court also noted that to be disabled under the ADA, a person must have an impairment (either mental or physical) which "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities." A physical impairment includes any "physiological disorder or condition affecting . . . the neurological or musculoskeletal system." For purposes of its decision, the court presumed that Wernick's condition constituted a physical impairment.

The district court then examined the "substantially limits" element. The regulations define major life activities as "functions such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working." The court observed that Wernick failed to allege any particular activity in her pleadings, but performed its analysis on the activity of working. The court stated that an impairment does not substantially limit a person's ability to work if it disqualifies her from "only a narrow range of jobs." Wernick alleged only an inability to work in one job at the FRB. She admitted she was capable of performing the duties of, and qualified for, a number of other positions at the FRB. The court found that because her back condition did not substantially limit her ability to work, or any other major life activity, she was not disabled within the meaning of the ADA. Thus, the court granted FRB summary judgment.

Wernick v. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 1995 WL 598973 (S.D.N.Y. 1995), aff'd 91 F.3d 379 (2d Cir. 1996). [Note: This opinion was not published in an official reporter and therefore should not be cited as authority. Please consult counsel before relying on this opinion.]