Bias Claim Fails Where Employer Hired Motivated Applicant


By Christine M. Burke February 4, 2020
interviewer shaking hands with job applicant who is a wheelchair user

​Evidence that an employer had hired a motivated candidate with a disability was relevant and nonprejudicial in a trial involving an unsuccessful applicant's claim of disability discrimination, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held.

The plaintiff filed suit against the Social Security Administration (SSA) in connection with her 2010 application for employment as a service representative. The case proceeded to a jury trial on the plaintiff's claim that SSA discriminated on the basis of physical disability when it failed to hire her. Although the jury determined that the plaintiff had a disability and that SSA regarded her as having a disability, it found that even without her disability, the plaintiff would not have been hired.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

The plaintiff appealed, arguing in part that the district court abused its discretion in allowing two categories of evidence to be admitted. The 7th Circuit determined that the district court did not err in admitting the evidence and affirmed the lower court's ruling.

First, the plaintiff argued that the district court should not have admitted evidence that five years after SSA denied her employment, she represented in an employment application to another agency that she was not disabled. The plaintiff asserted that her failure to list a disability in a 2015 application for employment was irrelevant to whether she had a disability when she applied to SSA in 2010.

The 7th Circuit disagreed, finding that the district court properly followed the standard relevancy analysis, whereby subsequent medical evidence is relevant to the question of an individual's condition during a particular period. Therefore, the 2015 employment application was properly admitted into evidence during trial.

Second, the plaintiff claimed that the district court erred by admitting evidence that SSA ultimately hired a candidate with a disability. The circuit court again affirmed the district court's ruling. The court first noted that evidence of the hired candidate's disability status, while not conclusive, was indeed relevant to the question of whether SSA possessed discriminatory motive.

To prevail on her appeal, therefore, the plaintiff was required to show that there was a significant chance the district court's ruling admitting the evidence affected the outcome of the trial.

The 7th Circuit ruled that the plaintiff had not satisfied this standard. It found that the evidence in the record showed that SSA had selected the successful candidate because she was more qualified than the plaintiff and demonstrated greater motivation and a more sincere desire to work at SSA than the plaintiff.

In other words, even if the evidence of the hired candidate's disability status had not been considered, the remaining evidence supported the jury's determination that SSA had not discriminated against the plaintiff. Accordingly, the inclusion of the evidence regarding the hired candidate's disability status was upheld.

Stegall v. Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, 7th Cir., No. 18-2345 (Dec. 4, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Employers should clearly document the reasons for hiring some candidates over others, including candidates' qualifications for the position and intangible qualities such as motivation. In this case, the ample evidence regarding the employer's evaluation of the candidates and its decision-making process enabled it to demonstrate that it did not have a discriminatory motive.

Christine M. Burke is an attorney with Lorenger & Carnell PLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Alexandria, Va.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Americans with Disabilities Act.]


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