Employer’s Documentation Helped Defeat ADA Claim

By Lance W. Parmer November 4, 2020
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female lab worker

An employee with carpal tunnel syndrome failed to show that her employer's reason for eliminating her position was a pretext for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Badger Mining Corp. employed the plaintiff as a research and development (R&D) laboratory technician. In that position, her supervisors had noted several performance issues regarding the way she dealt with conflict, worked with others, communicated and solved problems.

As part of her job, the plaintiff was trained to mix new lab batches of resin-coated products. However, on her first day mixing batches, she was only able to complete one batch during her shift. As a result, in mid-September her supervisors arranged to transfer another worker to assist with mixing batches. However, the transfer was delayed so this employee could complete work on another project.

In late September, the plaintiff reported that she had been diagnosed with bilateral degenerative joint disease and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and that she would likely need time off for follow-up tests, appointments and surgeries. Because the plaintiff was going to miss work for treatment, Badger expedited the co-worker's transfer.

Badger had been exploring ways to cut costs, and in late August or early September, Badger management held a meeting to discuss layoffs and decided that 33 positions needed to be eliminated, including one position in R&D. Management concluded that three of the five R&D employees had valuable skills that the plaintiff did not have. Thus, the decision came down to either the transferred co-worker or the plaintiff. Because of the plaintiff's issues with batch mixing, adaptability and working with limited direction, Badger decided to let her go.

The plaintiff filed suit under the ADA alleging that Badger eliminated her position because of her disability. The district court granted summary judgment for Badger, holding that the plaintiff had not shown that her disability was the reason Badger had eliminated her employment.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that Badger's stated reasons for firing her were false. First, she claimed that Badger was wrong about her abilities and performance. However, the court held that pretext is shown when an employer's proffered reason is "a lie." Because the evidence showed that Badger's belief as to her performance was genuine, this stated reason was not pretextual.

The plaintiff also claimed that Badger's other reasons for choosing to eliminate her position instead of her co-worker's—that she lacked self-direction and troubleshooting skills—were "implausible and unworthy of credence." However, the court held that it is not sufficient for a plaintiff, who bears the ultimate burden of proof at trial, to simply assert that a jury may not believe the defendant. Instead, she must present evidence to defeat Badger's properly supported motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiff also argued that the timing of her termination was suspicious and supported an inference that her position was eliminated because of her disability. However, the court held that the suspicious timing was not enough to survive summary judgment given Badger's reasonable explanations for the timing of her termination.

Since the plaintiff didn't offer sufficient evidence of pretext, the court affirmed the district court's ruling in favor of the company.

McCann v. Badger Mining Corp., 7th Cir., No. 3:18-cv-00073 (July 14, 2020).

Professional Pointer: This case provides another important reminder of the importance of documenting performance issues and the employer's decision-making processes. In response to a claim that an employer's reasons for terminating an employee are pretext, it is crucial for the employer to present evidence showing why and when a decision was made. Absent such evidence, a claim of pretext can be difficult to disprove.

Lance W. Parmer is an attorney with Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Birmingham, Ala.

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