Court Report

Mar 23, 2015
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December Cover 

Worker’s Disability Admission Blocks ADA Claim

Myers v. Knight Protective Service Inc., 10th Cir., No. 12-6056

A security guard couldn’t proceed with his Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) suit based on admissions he made about his weakened physical condition while applying for Social Security disability benefits, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held.

The guard, who had been injured at a previous job, was told by his current employer that he couldn’t return to work without passing a physical examination. He filed a lawsuit under the federal ADA, the federal trial court in Oklahoma dismissed the claim early in the proceedings, and the appeals court affirmed that dismissal.

While receiving disability benefits from the earlier workplace injury, Alphonso Myers obtained a job as an armed security guard with Knight Protective Service. As part of the hiring process, Myers was asked a number of questions about his physical condition. At the time, Myers said he had no relevant disabilities.

Professional Pointer

Any statements an employee makes in applying for disability benefits that are inconsistent with the employee’s assertions about his or her ability to perform a job may be useful to the employer in defending against an ADA claim.

Once Myers started working as a security guard, his supervisor, William Thompson, noticed that Myers appeared to be in pain and questioned Myers about it. Myers admitted that he had undergone a number of neck and back surgeries and had recurring pain. Thompson was concerned about Myers’ ability to do the job of an armed guard and worried that someone might grab his weapon or take him hostage. Thompson told Myers he couldn’t return to work without passing a physical exam.

After waiting months for the company to schedule an exam, Myers believed he had been terminated. He sued, alleging that the company discriminated against him. The trial court ruled in a summary judgment for the company, and the 10th Circuit affirmed.

Generally speaking, to take a discrimination claim to trial under the ADA, an employee must, among other things, show that he or she is qualified, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform the essential functions of the job.

Myers acknowledged in his written employment application with Knight that the essential functions of his job as an armed security guard required him to engage in frequent and prolonged walking, standing and sitting; to react quickly to dangerous situations; to subdue violent individuals; and to lift heavy weights. Yet, in representations Myers made to the Social Security Administration, he conceded that during the period in question he was constantly in pain, could stand for only 20 minutes at a time, and could walk for just 10 or 15 minutes before needing to stop. Myers told the agency that sometimes his pain was so severe he needed to stay at home and lie down, and it was undisputed that since 2005 he had been unable to lift more than 10 pounds.

The 10th Circuit decision noted that the fact that an individual applied for or received Social Security disability benefits would not always bar a discrimination claim. But when there are inconsistent statements made, there must be a sufficient explanation for the contradiction, and Myers had failed to provide such an explanation.

By Linda H. Evans, an attorney with Neel, Hooper & Banes P.C., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Houston.

Fire Lieutenants Not Entitled to Overtime

Watkins v. City of Montgomery, 11th Cir., No. 13-11718

More than 50 fire suppression lieutenants were considered exempt executive employees and, as a result, were not entitled to overtime compensation under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) even though their employer made salary deductions for disciplinary suspensions, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The FLSA provides an exemption to the overtime requirement for people employed in an executive capacity who are compensated on a salary basis at a rate of not less than $455 per week. An employee is deemed to be paid on a salary basis if the compensation the employee receives each pay period “is not subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of the work performed,” according to the federal regulations.

Professional Pointer

An employer won’t lose an employee’s executive exempt status under the FLSA if it suspends the employee without pay—as long as the suspension was imposed for violations of significant safety or conduct rules.

An employer can lose the exemption if it applies suspensions in a given week and fails to pay the regular salaries. In this case, the city of Montgomery, Ala., had imposed unpaid disciplinary suspensions on 12 of the fire lieutenants during the relevant time period. As a result, the fire lieutenants contended that they weren’t exempt from overtime.

The general rule prohibiting deductions from an exempt employee’s pay is subject to exceptions. Two of those exceptions were at issue in this appeal: deductions for violations of safety rules of major significance and reductions of an exempt employee’s pay by way of unpaid disciplinary suspensions, imposed in good faith, for violations of laws or serious workplace conduct rules.

The lieutenants contended that the city made improper deductions for suspensions outside these exceptions. A jury ruled for the city, and the 11th Circuit affirmed.

By Christopher W. Deering, a shareholder in the Birmingham, Ala., office of Ogletree Deakins.

Punitive Damages Don’t Require Economic Harm

Arizona v. ASARCO LLC, 9th Cir., No. 11-17484

Even when a jury finds there has been no economic harm to an employee, the employer can be ordered to pay the maximum amount of punitive damages allowed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Angela Aguilar was employed by ASARCO LLC at a copper mine complex near Tucson, Ariz., for 11 months. While working there, Aguilar complained of multiple incidents of sexual harassment, including sexually aggressive behavior by her immediate supervisor, pornographic graffiti directed at her on the walls of a portable toilet rented specifically for her use, and overly aggressive management and criticism by supervisors. Aguilar brought her concerns to ASARCO management on several occasions. Although the company had an anti-discrimination policy in force, it neither investigated Aguilar’s complaints nor took any meaningful steps to stop or prevent the harassment.

Professional Pointer

Even if an employee has suffered no real economic harm due to an employer’s unlawful discrimination, a jury can still award punitive damages in cases where the employer’s conduct is deemed particularly outrageous or reprehensible.

As a result of Aguilar’s complaints, the state of Arizona sued ASARCO for state law violations. Aguilar subsequently filed her own federal claim under Title VII. At trial, a jury found ASARCO liable for sexual harassment but didn’t award compensatory damages, opting instead to award $1 in nominal damages and $868,750 in punitive damages. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive damages award to $300,000. The company appealed, arguing that the punitive damages award was excessive and a violation of its constitutional due-process rights.

On appeal, the 9th Circuit found that the standard for judging punitive damages designed for nonstatutory claims didn’t apply to Title VII cases. So, the appeals court held that the $300,000 in punitive damages didn’t violate the company’s due-process rights.

By John T. Ellis, an attorney with Ufberg & Associates LLP, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Scranton, Pa.

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