Thursday, June 14, 2012 -
Breaking from seventeen years of precedent, the Sixth Circuit in Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corporation, Inc., __ F.3d ___, 2012 WL 1889389 (6th Cir. May 25, 2012), rejected its long standing rule that plaintiffs alleging violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may prevail only if they show that their disability was the “sole” reason for any adverse employment action.
The ADA prohibits discrimination “because of” a disability of an employee. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Lewis, a registered nurse, had a medical condition which made it difficult for her to walk and she occasionally used a wheelchair. The employer, a retirement home, maintained that it dismissed Lewis based on an outburst at work in which she allegedly yelled, used profanity and criticized her supervisors. Lewis maintained that she was terminated because of her disability. Lewis argued the phrase “because of” should be read as allowing her to prevail if her disability was “a motivating factor” in her employer’s decision to terminate her employment as a registered nurse in one of its retirement homes. The trial court interpreted the ADA’s “because of” language to mean that the employee could prevail only if the employer’s decision to fire her was “solely” because of her disability and so instructed the jury. The jury ruled for the employer, using this high standard.
On rehearing en banc, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that an employee was not required to show that her disability was the “sole” reason for her termination in order to prevail on her ADA claim. However, the Sixth Circuit refused to adopt the “motivating factor” analysis from Title VII cases, as urged by Lewisand used by the majority of circuits in ADA cases. Instead, in a divided opinion, the Sixth Circuit held the employee was required to show that her disability was a “but for” cause of the employer’s adverse employment action. Thus the Sixth Circuit now requires an ADA plaintiff to prove that, under the facts and circumstances in a given case, the plaintiff would not have been subject to the adverse personal action at issue “but for” her disability. In adopting this reduced evidentiary standard, the Sixth Circuit relied on Gross v. FBL Financial Services, 557 U.S. 167 (2009), where the Supreme Court construed similar language found in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Plaintiffs in ADEA cases must satisfy this “but for” burden.
The Lewis decision makes it easier for employees to prevail on ADA claims in the Sixth Circuit. Given this plaintiff-friendly ruling, employers should make sure that all employment decisions affecting persons with disabilities are free from discrimination. Our labor and employment lawyers are available to provide counsel as to any proposed adverse employment action which might invite a challenge under the ADA.
For additional information and discussion on this topic, please get in touch with your regular Calfee contact or one of the Labor & Employment attorneys listed below:
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