No Discrimination When Decision-Makers Were Unaware of Disability


By Jeffrey Rhodes March 12, 2019

​A former employee of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. could not establish disability discrimination when there was no evidence that the managers who fired him knew of his disability prior to discharge, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Goodyear hired the plaintiff, a black veteran who had lupus, on July 13, 2015, on a probationary basis as the relief operator on the Z Calendar Machine. Prior to his employment, the plaintiff experienced kidney failure and received a kidney transplant in 2012. He was medically cleared to work with no restrictions by a Veterans Administration (VA) doctor, as well as by nurses at Goodyear.

Goodyear terminated the plaintiff's employment within the probationary period two months later after he received two probationary evaluations—one from the area manager and one from the HR professional. Both evaluations contained almost all "unacceptable" ratings.

The HR professional recommended termination and claimed that the plaintiff failed to wear safety equipment, took personal time off without notice, did not follow instructions and used his cellphone in an unauthorized area. The area manager's evaluation form listed several issues with the plaintiff's job performance, including an inability or lack of willingness to learn, a bad attitude toward his trainers, and lengthy disappearances.

After his discharge, the plaintiff filed suit against Goodyear and brought race-discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. Section 1981 as well as a disability-discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Goodyear filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the district court, and the plaintiff appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit.

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

On appeal, the plaintiff claimed that the district court erred in granting summary judgment because the decision to fire him was race-based and his performance was satisfactory. He also contended that Goodyear management discriminated against him based on his lupus and related kidney issues, which required him to take frequent bathroom breaks.

The appeals court found insufficient evidence of race discrimination to overturn the district court's ruling. While the plaintiff alleged a disparaging comment by a white co-worker, and counseling that was inconsistent with how Goodyear treated another probationary employee, the plaintiff did not show that these incidents resulted in his discharge. He also did not successfully contest the performance reasons given for his discharge.

Regarding his ADA claim, the plaintiff asserted on appeal that the decision-makers, including the area manager and the HR professional, knew of his disability. However, the plaintiff admitted not knowing whether management was aware that he had lupus, though he assumed the HR professional must have known because it was in his file.

The plaintiff asserted that the area manager was aware of his disability because, on one occasion, he had asked for a day off to go to the VA hospital. The plaintiff acknowledged, however, that he did not explain to the area manager the reason for his hospital visit.
The plaintiff also asserted that his self-identification form put management on notice of his disability. But he failed to show who in management would have reviewed the form. Additionally, the self-identification form merely contained a checkmark next to the box "[i]ndividual with a disability" without any further details about the plaintiff's condition.

As a result, the appeals court found that the decision-makers did not have actual knowledge of the plaintiff's disability, and thus the plaintiff was not discriminated against based on his disability.

The appeals court also found that the plaintiff failed to contest the substantial evidence of his poor performance or to identify a similarly situated comparator without a disability who was not fired after performing as poorly as he had. The court thus upheld the district court's entry of summary judgment for Goodyear.

Payne v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 11th Cir., No. 18-11612 (Jan. 16, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Employers are well-advised to keep information about an employee's disability private and share it only with those in the employee's direct management chain with a business need to know. This practice not only comports with the confidentiality requirements of the ADA, but it can also support the employer's defenses to a disability-discrimination claim.

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


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