Cook County Record

Friday, September 20, 2019

Ice rink mechanic fired after Zamboni accident can't sue rink owners under Disabilities Act

State Court

By Karen Kidd | Aug 1, 2019

| MorgueFile - kconnors

CHICAGO —  A former employee of a Westfield, Ind., skating rink has failed to show the company discriminated against and fired him based on his disability, a federal appeals court ruled July 23.

In its seven-page decision issued July 23, a U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel affirmed an Indiana federal judge's ruling that granted summary judgment to Arctic Zone Iceplex in the discrimination suit filed by its former head mechanic and maintenance supervisor. 

The former employee, James Graham, Jr., sued Arctic Zone, alleging the rink failed to accommodate his disability after he was injured on the job, and ultimately fired him.

"Graham has failed to establish an issue of material fact about whether Arctic Zone discriminated against him by failing to reasonably accommodate him or by terminating him," the appeals court said in its decision.

Seventh Circuit Judge Amy C. Barrett wrote the decision. Judges Michael S. Kanne and Michael B. Brennan concurred.

Arctic Zone Iceplex hired Graham in December 2014 as head mechanic and maintenance supervisor with responsibilities that included maintaining the ice rink and operating the rinks' Zamboni, a machine that smoothes the surface of ice, according to the background portion of the decision.

"Graham's tenure at Arctic Zone was not without issues," the decision said. "Shortly after he began working at the rink, Arctic Zone received customer complaints about his attitude. And the customers were not the only ones who noticed. Arctic Zone observed Graham’s attitude problems firsthand, as well as his difficulty completing tasks on time."

Arctic Zone did not write Graham up at the time.

In February 2015, Graham was injured on the job and he did not return to work until May of that year, during which time he received workers' compensation, according to the decision. When he did return to work, it was "with certain medical restrictions" that included working while seated, the decision said.

In August 2015, Graham returned to full-time work, and Arctic Zone assigned him to work evenings rather than during the day, a decision the rink attributed to "seasonal need" but which Graham characterized as a "demotion" to the position of night mechanic, the decision said.

The following October, Graham allegedly caused a Zamboni accident and was fired the same day. Among the reasons Arctic Zone gave for Graham's termination were poor attitude toward customers, lack of timeliness in completing his duties, insubordination with management and the Zamboni accident, according to the decision. 

Graham sued Arctic Zone, alleging Americans with Disabilities Act violations and alleging the rink failed to reasonably accommodate his disability and terminated him because of his disability.

An Indianapolis federal judge sided with the rink owners, and Graham appealed.

Graham argued that the behavioral problems cited in his termination notice were not legitimate reasons to fire him because he had not been previously written up or disciplined for those problems before the Zamboni accident.

"His premise seems to be that by not addressing the issues earlier, Arctic Zone somehow forfeited its right to count these problems as black marks on his record," the decision said. "Not so. Arctic Zone’s decision to let something slide without a formal response does not mean that it went unnoticed or untallied."

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