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McBee v. Team Industries, Inc.

Supreme Court of Minnesota

March 27, 2019

Thaleaha McBee, Appellant,
v.
Team Industries, Inc., Respondent.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Daniel G. Leland, Ryan T. Conners, Leland Conners PLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Christopher J. Harristhal, John A. Kvinge, Larkin Hoffman Daly & Lindgren, Ltd., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Jonathan D. Moler, Rachel E. Bell Munger, Assistant Attorneys General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

          Mike Schechter, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Associated General Contractors of Minnesota.

          Stephen C. Fiebiger, Stephen C. Fiebiger Law Office, Chartered, Burnsville, Minnesota;

          Frances E. Baillon, Baillon Thome Jozwiak & Wanta LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota;

          Nicholas G.B. May, Fabian, May & Anderson, P.L.L.P., Minneapolis, Minnesota;

          Leslie L. Lienemann, Culberth & Lienemann, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amici curiae National Employment Lawyers Association-Minnesota Chapter and Employee Lawyers Association of the Upper Midwest.

         SYLLABUS

         1. An interactive process between an employer and an employee seeking accommodation for a disability is not required by the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01-.44 (2018).

         2. A factual dispute precludes summary judgment on an employee's accommodation claim. 3. A factual dispute precludes summary judgment on an employer's serious-threat defense.

          OPINION

          ANDERSON, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Thaleaha McBee was employed at an aluminum die-casting plant operated by respondent Team Industries, Inc. McBee, who was experiencing back problems, brought suit against Team under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01-.44 (2018), claiming that Team failed to engage in an interactive process to determine reasonable accommodations for her disability before Team ended her employment. Team argues that no interactive process is required under the Act; regardless, McBee could not perform the essential functions of her position and continuing McBee's employment posed a serious threat to her health. The district court granted summary judgment for Team, and the court of appeals affirmed. McBee v. Team Indus., Inc., 906 N.W.2d 880 (Minn.App. 2018). We agree that the Act does not mandate an interactive process. But genuine factual disputes regarding the essential functions of McBee's employment and Team's serious-threat defense preclude summary judgment. We therefore affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district court for trial.

         FACTS

         Team is an engineering and manufacturing company with a plant in Detroit Lakes. This plant includes a foundry and aluminum-die-casting facility employing approximately 90 people. McBee was a full-time "operator" (or "cell member"), which involved working on the die-casting production line. As the district court described her employment duties, "McBee would pick a part up from a conveyor belt, pound trim off the part, put it on the trim press, and once completed, put it in a carrier of parts (called a 'gaylord') to be picked up by a forklift."

         On March 10, 2015, McBee met with a neurosurgeon, reporting dizziness and loss of balance. In an answer to an interrogatory, McBee stated that she suffered from "vertebrate disc narrowing, a bulged disc or discs in her neck and back, and bone spurs in her vertebrae," which caused her "severe pain and numbness." The doctor discussed possible surgery options with McBee and issued a 10-pound lifting, pulling, or pushing restriction. The doctor also recommended that she "not bend her neck up."

         That evening, McBee reported for her shift and showed a Team "shift lead," McBee's immediate supervisor, the doctor's note. The shift lead told McBee to discuss it with the nightshift supervisor. McBee then told the nightshift supervisor that her physician warned her that "looking up" could cause paralysis. She was informed that she may have to go home, but instead was assigned to a different machine and worked a full shift that night without incident.

         The following night, the nightshift supervisor met with McBee before her shift began. McBee gave him emergency contact information. The nightshift supervisor told McBee that Team's human resources manager wanted to see her.

         The human resources manager recalled that McBee "was very shook up about becoming paralyzed," "very emotional," and "crying" during this meeting. McBee recalled, "I told him I had a 10-pound weight restriction, and I explained to him that the doctor had stated to me that looking up could risk paralysis." McBee also recalled that her doctor said that she should be in a neck brace, but he would not give her one because she was driving by herself. According to McBee, the human resources manager responded by telling her that she was a "huge insurance liability" and that, until her 10-pound restriction was lifted, "if you just happen to magically appear on machines 3, 4, and 5 until surgery and after your 10-pound weight restriction is lifted, then that's how it will be." McBee testified in her deposition that these machines "constantly" ran parts under 10 pounds. She was then sent home and did not work her shift.

         The next day, Team terminated McBee's employment. She talked with the human resources manager over the phone, informing him that she had followed up with the neurosurgeon, who had clarified that she could work as long as she followed the weight restriction. The human resources manager told her that he had discussed the matter with Team's plant manager. Because of the danger of injury, she could no longer work for Team.

         McBee brought an action that included a claim for failure to accommodate her disability[1] in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01-.44.[2]Team moved for summary judgment. As relevant here, McBee and Team disagreed as to whether the Act requires an employer to engage in an interactive process with an employee seeking accommodation, whether McBee could perform the essential functions of a cell member with reasonable accommodation, see Minn. Stat. § 363A.08, subd.6, and whether her continued employment posed a serious threat to her health, see Minn. Stat. § 363A.25.

         McBee relied on the deposition testimony of Team's shift lead to argue that she could perform the essential functions of her position with reasonable accommodation. The shift lead, with over 4 years' experience at Team in this role, had previously worked as an operator at Team and was familiar with the duties and responsibilities of Team operators. In his words, his job was to "[m]onitor the machines, make sure everything is running as it should, make sure operators are ...


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