constructive discharge

By Danielle M. Kays and Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis: For the first time since the enactment in 2008 of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which broadened the definition of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Ninth Circuit addressed, and expanded, the definition of an individual who is “regarded-as” disabled under the act. The court held that a plaintiff establishes he is “regarded-as” disabled if he shows “an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment,” regardless of whether the impairment actually limits, or the employer perceives the impairment to limit, a major life activity. The decision reminds employers to proceed carefully when making personnel decisions regarding employees with injuries or impairments, even if they may not rise to the level of a disability.

Case Background

In Nunies v. HIE Holdings, Inc., the plaintiff Herman Nunies was a former delivery driver for HIE Holdings in Honolulu, who had requested a transfer to a part-time warehouse position. The parties disputed the plaintiff’s stated reason for his transfer request, but the plaintiff claimed he requested the transfer to a less-physical position because he had developed shoulder pain. Plaintiff alleged that the Company initially approved the transfer but subsequently denied it and forced him to resign after he reported his shoulder pain to his employer. The employer cited budget cuts as the reason for denying the transfer and advised plaintiff that his position no longer existed, but evidence showed the employer had an open warehouse position at the time of plaintiff’s termination.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit asserting disability discrimination under the ADA and state law, alleging that his employer forced him to resign because of his shoulder injury. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff could not assert a prima facie case of disability discrimination because he was not disabled under the ADA, among other arguments. The district court agreed, granting summary judgment to the employer. In its decision, the district court held that plaintiff did not have a disability and was not “regarded-as” having a disability under the ADAAA, because plaintiff did not provide any evidence that the employer subjectively believed that plaintiff “was substantially limited in a major life activity.” The district court further held that the plaintiff did not establish an actual disability because he “did not identify any major life activities that were affected by his impairment” — indeed, plaintiff had continued to work without apparent issue or limitation. As further evidence that plaintiff was not disabled, the district court held that plaintiff had not demonstrated that his shoulder pain substantially limited any activity compared to most people in the general population.

The plaintiff appealed, joined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) as amicus curiae. The EEOC explained it offered its position to the appellate court because other district courts in the circuit had “failed to heed” the broader “regarded-as” disability definition promulgated by the ADAAA.

The Ninth Circuit’s Ruling

The Ninth Circuit agreed that the ADAAA expanded the scope of the ADA’s “regarded-as” definition and that some district courts continued to rely on pre-ADAAA case law to apply the older, narrower “regarded-as” disabled definition. Specifically, the district court in the Nunies case had erroneously concluded that Plaintiff had failed to meet his burden of presenting evidence that his employer “subjectively believed that Plaintiff is substantially limited in a major life activity.” Based on the plain language of the ADAAA, the appellate court held that plaintiff was not required to present evidence that the employer believed that plaintiff was substantially limited in a major life activity. Instead, the plaintiff could simply show that the employer terminated plaintiff “because of” his knowledge of the shoulder pain, regardless of whether the employer actually perceived the shoulder pain as a disability, and regardless of whether or not the shoulder pain amounted to an actual disability. Notably, the Ninth Circuit’s expansion of the scope of the “regarded-as” disability definition follows decisions in the First, Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Circuits which similarly defined the definition under the ADAAA.

Additionally, although the employer had argued that the ADAAA “regarded-as” disabled definition does not apply to “transitory and minor impairments,” the appellate court noted that this exception is an affirmative defense with the burden of proof on the defendant, and not the plaintiff. The court held that the employer had not set forth evidence to establish plaintiff’s shoulder pain was transitory and minor.

Therefore, the appellate court held that Plaintiff had established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employer regarded him as having a disability.

The Ninth Circuit further reversed the circuit court’s holding that the plaintiff could not establish his shoulder pain was an actual disability. Specifically, the appellate court found that because plaintiff could neither work nor lift more than 25 pounds nor lift his arm above chest height without pain, he had identified two major life activities affected by his impairment. The court noted an impairment “need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict the activity” in order to substantially affect a major life activity. Therefore, the court found an issue of fact as to whether plaintiff had an actual disability.

Takeaways for Employers

The protections under the ADA, the ADAAA, and state law are ever-evolving and sometimes nebulous. As disability-related issues continue to increase in the workplace, employers should proceed carefully when considering personnel decisions involving individuals with potential injuries or impairments, as they may meet the “regarded-as” disabled definition. This decision is an important reminder to employers to ensure that any adverse actions taken against such employees are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons, and to carefully document the business reasons for those adverse actions.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating personnel decisions relating to employees with medical afflictions, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

 

By Honore Hishamunda and Alex S. Drummond

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers face a tough challenge in trying to balance their obligations under the ADA with efforts to enforce workplace rules. A recent decision out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, however, highlighted how employers can get that balance right.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), among other things, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees qualified to perform the essential functions of their jobs and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the ADA. But what if, in the midst of attempting to comply with these obligations, employers have to enforce workplace rules against someone requesting a reasonable accommodation? A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision – McDonald v. UAW-GM Center for Human Resources – highlighted how, with care, employers can balance these seemingly competing goals.

The plaintiff in the case was a receptionist, a union member, and suffered from a genetic disorder which, with the employer’s permission, she took time off from work to treat. During plaintiff’s time with the employer, the operative CBA required employees to take lunch breaks no earlier than 11:00 a.m., and to, once a year, select either a half-hour lunchbreak with separate additional 15-minute breaks or an hour long lunch break. Plaintiff, despite these policies and despite choosing a half hour break, began leaving for the gym at 10:30 a.m. and tacking on her 15-minute breaks to essentially take an hour long break. In addition, plaintiff was accused of sexually harassing another co-worker.

In the midst of the employer’s sexual harassment investigation, plaintiff asked if she could either switch to an hour long break or tack on breaks in order to continue to work out as it helped with the pain from her previous surgeries. Her supervisor rejected this request citing the CBA’s rules, and offered plaintiff the option of arriving early in the mornings to work out. In addition plaintiff’s supervisor warned plaintiff that continued violation of the early or extend lunch break policy could result in disciplinary action.

Plaintiff rejected her supervisor’s compromise, and contacted the company’s personnel manager regarding her requests, this time providing a doctor’s note stating that plaintiff needed to exercise daily for 30 to 60 minutes. The personnel manager stated that the request would need approval from other members of management. However, while plaintiff’s request was being processed and on the same day she received an update regarding the same, plaintiff left early to go to the gym without authorization. Plaintiff was caught and eventually suspended for violating workplace rules. Plaintiff never returned to work and instead took personal leave before submitting her voluntary resignation. The time between her initial accommodation request and her resignation was less than 2 months.

Plaintiff sued claiming a failure to accommodate. Further, plaintiff alleged that her employer suspended her in retaliation for requesting a reasonable accommodation, or, alternatively, that she was constructively discharged. The Sixth Circuit, affirming the District Court, granted employer’s motion for summary judgment on each of plaintiff’s claims.

The Sixth Circuit held that the employer met its obligations to reasonably accommodate plaintiff. Specifically, the court found that the employer listened to plaintiff’s initial request for an accommodation, provided alternatives, again listened to plaintiff’s second request for an accommodation, and was unable to process the request because plaintiff resigned. In doing so, the court noted that, in the ADA context, (i) an employer’s minimal delay due to internal processing or events outside of its control does not an ADA violation; (ii) an employer is not required to provide a specific accommodation if it identify other reasonable accommodations; and (iii) when an employee quits before their accommodation request is resolved, the employee, and not the employer, is typically at fault for the interactive process breaking down.

In addition, the Sixth Circuit held that the employer did not retaliate against plaintiff for asserting her ADA rights. Specifically, the court found that plaintiff was not retaliated against because she was suspended for violating workplace rules, not for requesting reasonable accommodations. In doing so, the court noted that an employee must show that their protected activity was the “but-for” cause of any adverse action. Further, the court found that plaintiff, and other employees, cannot make such a showing where “an intervening legitimate reason to take an adverse employment action [like insubordination] dispels an inference of retaliation based on temporal proximity.”

The Sixth Circuit also held that the employer did not constructively discharge plaintiff. Specifically, the court found that plaintiff’s complained of treatment – the employer investigating her for alleged sexual harassment, declining her preferred accommodation, and suspending her for insubordination – did not support her constructive discharge claim. In doing so, the court noted that a constructive discharge claim “is hard to prove” and requires a showing that “working conditions were objectively intolerable and that [the] employer deliberately created those conditions in hopes that they would force [the employee] to quit.” Further, the court noted that, in the instant case, plaintiff’s suspension was related to her “deliberate insubordination” and her investigation was “management simply… responding to a workplace complaint” such that “no reasonable jury could find that [employer] hoped [plaintiff] would quit because of these preferred reasons.”

This decision highlights that, even when wrestling with their obligations under the ADA context, employers may and should enforce workplace rules.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.