May 25 (Reuters) - A worker suing her employer under the
Americans with Disabilities Act does not have to prove that she
was fired solely because of her disability, a federal appeals
court ruled on Friday.
For the past 17 years, the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has required district courts to
instruct juries that an employee's disability must be sole
reason for his or her firing.
But in considering the case of Susan Lewis, a former nurse
suing her employer, the court abandoned that standard in a
splintered 9-7 ruling, making it somewhat easier for workers to
sue for disability discrimination.
"The longer we have stood by this standard, the more out of
touch it has become with the standards used by our sister
circuits. At this point, no other circuit imports the 'solely'
test into the ADA," Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for the
Lewis sued retirement-home operator Humboldt Acquisition
Corp in 2007, claiming she was fired for a medical condition
that made it difficult to walk and required use of a wheelchair.
Humboldt claimed that Lewis was fired because of a
profanity-laced outburst at her supervisors.
Humboldt had asked the court to instruct the jury that Lewis
could only prevail on her ADA claim if her disability was the
sole reason for her firing. The district court obliged,
following the 6th Circuit's longstanding rule, and the jury
ruled in Humboldt's favor.
On appeal, Lewis argued that the district court should have
instructed the jury that her disability only had to be one
"motivating factor" -- the same standard used for Title VII
claims alleging discrimination based on race, religion and sex.
The ADA was enacted to expand protections beyond Title VII to
cover disability, and so the same test should apply to both
laws, Lewis argued.
Most other federal circuits apply the more lenient
"motivating factor" standard to ADA claims, requiring plaintiff
employees to prove that their disability was one of several
contributing reasons for the firing.
While the 6th Circuit majority retreated from the sole-cause
test, it refused to embrace the "motivating factor" jury
instruction. Rather, the court settled on an intermediate test,
requiring employees to prove that they would not have been fired
if they had not been disabled.
The current ADA bars discrimination against an employee
"because of" a disability. For guidance on what that means, the
6th Circuit majority turned to a 2009 Supreme Court case, Gross
v. FBL Financial Services, which set the standard for age
discrimination claims. Federal age discrimination law bars
discrimination "because of" age. In Gross, the Supreme Court
said that meant employees suing for age discrimination had to
show that they would have kept their jobs "but for" their age.
The same test should apply to disability claims under the ADA,
the 6th Circuit majority concluded, sending the case back to the
district court for a new trial.
Seven judges disagreed with the majority's interpretation in
three separate partial dissents. The majority failed to
accomplish the court's original goal of lining up with the
prevailing legal opinion across the country, Judge Eric Clay
Eric Schnapper of the University of Washington School of
Law, a lawyer for Lewis, said the question of whether the Gross
ruling applied to ADA claims was just beginning to surface and
was likely to be litigated in lower courts across the country
for years to come.
James Simms of Cornelius & Collins, who represented
Humboldt, was not immediately available for comment.
Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and
the Equal Employment Advisory Council weighed in on the appeal
as amici in support of Humboldt. Rae Vann, a lawyer for the
groups, said the 6th Circuit decision bodes well for employers.
"Post-Gross, courts aren't applying the motivating factor
test as a matter of course," she said. "The Gross ruling does
stand as a huge obstacle in going down that path now."
The case is Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp, U.S. Court
of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, No. 09-6381.
For Lewis: Eric Schnapper of the University of Washington
School of Law.
For Humboldt: James Simms of Cornelius & Collins.
(Reporting By Terry Baynes)
Follow us on Twitter @ReutersLegal | Like us on Facebook