No Discrimination When Decision-Maker Was Unaware of Disability

By Maria Cáceres-Boneau December 20, 2022

Takeaway: Employers may take adverse action against employees with disabilities or members of other protected categories if they are insubordinate. 

​A federal district court in Connecticut granted summary judgment against disability and gender discrimination and failure-to-accommodate claims brought by a seasonal campground worker who was fired after she was involved in a public altercation and slapped her supervisor's hand.

The plaintiff worked as a temporary, seasonal employee during the employer's camping season from 2012 through 2016 and returned after a two-year hiatus in 2019. Prior to the 2019 camping season, a manager contacted the plaintiff, who was a licensed bingo caller, to hire her to help with bingo, to design medals and certificates, and to schedule employees and camper activities.

The plaintiff had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder. The manager who contacted her to return to work in 2019 was aware the plaintiff was diagnosed with PTSD and depression.

The plaintiff made several accommodation requests relating to her disability, including asking for time off for medical and therapy appointments and informing the manager that she had "an issue with being around big crowds of people." The plaintiff admitted that she was never promised she could avoid working with others altogether.

In April 2019, the plaintiff began working at the campground fulfilling the responsibilities discussed above and, in addition, finding employees on the campground and calling bingo "around huge crowds when [she] didn't want to do it."

During the 2019 camping season, the plaintiff was involved in verbal arguments on four occasions. During the fourth argument, she slapped a supervisor's hands and began slapping herself in the face.

The plaintiff took a break after this incident, and her employment was terminated when she returned. The general manager decided to terminate the plaintiff's employment based on her physically slapping a supervisor during a hostile, public altercation. The general manager was unaware of the plaintiff's disability when he made the decision.

The plaintiff's termination was consistent with the termination of a male employee who had used physical force when he grabbed a cellphone from the hand of a guest who was filming him as he addressed a noise complaint.

Court Action

The plaintiff brought claims for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA) and gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court analyzed these claims under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.

The court relied on a summary order of the 2nd Circuit in granting summary judgment on the plaintiff's disability discrimination claims under the ADA and CFEPA. The court explained that the ADA and CFEPA employ different causation standards for proving the discriminatory intent required to establish a prima-facie case.

The ADA applies a "but-for" cause standard, whereas the CFEPA employs a more easily satisfied "motivating factor" test. Nonetheless, the court found the plaintiff had failed to establish a prima-facie case under both standards because she did not show that the manager who made the decision to terminate her employment had knowledge of her disabilities.

Summary judgment was also granted on the plaintiff's gender discrimination claims because the plaintiff failed to establish a prima-facie case under Title VII. The court reasoned that the evidence did not support a finding that a similarly situated male would be treated differently. The plaintiff had not been disciplined for past incidents, two other women involved in arguments with the plaintiff were not terminated, and the employer had terminated a male employee for using physical force.

The court also granted summary judgment on the plaintiff's failure-to-accommodate claims. The court found that an essential function of the plaintiff's job was working with people in small groups. It rejected the plaintiff's allegation that her employer had failed to accommodate her when she was assigned to work in a corn maze with three to four other employees. The plaintiff's accommodation request had been to avoid big groups, not small ones, and the court noted that the plaintiff's sister was among those in the small group.

Kunkel v. Strawberry Park Resort Campground Inc., D. Conn., No. 23:20-cv-01906 (Nov. 2, 2022).

Maria Cáceres-Boneau is an attorney with Duane Morris LLP in New York City.



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