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ADA Claims Continue to Falter

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Despite the high expectations of employees and their advocates, the broadening of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a little over six years ago has not had the beneficial effect they hoped for, at least in recent case law from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Federal court litigation in Minnesota and six surrounding states. 

Enacted by Congress in 2008 and signed by President George W. Bush in the waning days of his second term, the series of amendments to the Federal law barring discrimination against disabled individuals responsible to employment law rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court that, in the eyes of many, had effectively disabled the law.

The main features of the law, which apply to employers with 15 or more employees, include:

  • Coverage for individuals with a substantial limitation of “one or more major life activities,” requires  covered employees to furnish a “reasonable accommodation;”
  • Employers must be capable to perform the “essential functions” of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation;
  • Employers may not take adverse action against an employee due to the disability or a “perception” of disability.

The federal law is supplemented in Minnesota by the anti-discrimination provision of the State Human Rights Act, which has similar terms but applies more favorably to nearly all employees, regardless of some of the businesses.

While the terms of the measure are more user friendly, pursuing ADA claims still poses formidable obstacles to employees.  This is particularly so in the Eighth Circuit, as reflected in a trio of rulings in the latter part of 2014 upholding lower court dismissals of ADA lawsuits.

The cases, including one from Minnesota, shared some similarities.  All were brought by employees who suffered work-related injuries to different parts of their anatomies.  Each claimed that their subsequent terminations were due to disabilities in violation of the Act.  The lower courts threw out all three on summary judgment, and the appellate court thrice concurred.

Temporal Termination

An argument by a supervisor at a sheet metal plant in Pine City that the temporal proximity between the onset of his disability and subsequent termination constituted an ADA violation was rejected in E.E.O.C. v. Product Fabricators, Inc., 763 F.3d 963 (8th Cir. Aug. 15, 2014).  Chief Judge Michael J. Davis of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota had previously dismissed the lawsuit, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The employer, sued along with a successor purchaser of the business by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the discharged employee, had accommodated the claimant’s right rotator cuff shoulder injury for about a year before the termination.   The supervisor experienced performance problems, and was not “terminated on the basis of [his] disability.”  The “long-time period that [the company] accommodated [the employee]” negates causation, a necessary requirement for a prima facie case under the ADA.

The employee’s performance issues constituted a “legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for terminating” him.  Nor was the discharge pretextual because the claimant did not establish the company’s “failure to follow its own policies” or any “disparate treatment of similarly situated employees.”

Aggressive Appeal

Another poorly performing supervisor who worked at an ethanol producing facility in neighboring South Dakota also lost his ADA on wrongful termination appeal in Cody v. Prairie Ethanol, 763 F.3d 992 (8th Cir. Aug. 15, 2014).  The employee was terminated after his “overly aggressive” handling of some mechanical issues at the plant caused him to be placed on a performance improvement plan preceding his discharge.

Upholding summary judgment, the appellate court reasoned that the discharge was attributable to the employee’s “style of running the plant,” not his disability.  The employee was responsible for multiple “very serious occurrences … [that did] cause significant decreases in production” at the plant.

The employee’s own admission of his fault, a statement “I really screwed up,” dispelled his claim that a work related neck injury was the basis for his discharge.  Absent any “causal connection” to his disability, the termination did not violate the ADA.

Probation Problem

An assistant probation officer, whose problem was providing a requested medical release following a disability; lost his ADA claim in Withers v. Johnson,  763 F.3d 998 (8th Cir. Aug. 15, 2014).  The officer, who suffered a back injury on the job, restricting his work, sued the judge who supervised him and the county for which he worked, after he was fired when he did not submit a requested release indicating he was able to return to his job after taking a medical leave of absence.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment, holding that a county policy to “immediately provide [a] supervisor with [a] medical release” for fitness for duty was decisive.  The employer properly “accommodated all of [the] known limitations during the period of [his employment].  Thus, there was no “intent” to discriminate against him.

Diversity Decision

The difficulty of prevailing in disability discrimination cases in the Eighth Circuit was considered near the end of the year by another decision upholding dismissal of a parallel claim under state human rights statute in Noel v. AT&T, 2014 U.S. App.  LEXIS 22887 (8th Cir. 2014).

The case, a diversity suit in federal court in Missouri, was brought by an employee whose diabetes limited the frequent travel necessary for his work.  The employer gave him a new position, not involving travel.  He performed poorly, was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan and then, after six more months of disability leave, quit his job.

His disability claim was properly dismissed because the employer “did nothing of the sort” that could be deemed a constructive discharge.  It did not urge him to resign, or tell him he could not return to work after his leave, nor “discharge him in any way related to his diabetes.”  Because the employee “chose to resign,” due to his medical condition, his claim was not actionable.

This quartet of cases reflects the continuing frustrations that employees face in pursuing claims under the ADA and why many of them view the statute as a disabled law.