ADA Disability Discrimination: Employee who is Terminated Shortly After Employer Finds out About as Back Injury Has Viable ADA Case

In passing the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA), Congress made it significantly easier for employees to establish that they are disabled under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). The non-exhaustive list of “major life activities” was expanded and the definition of disability is now construed in favor of broad coverage of employees. Major life activities under the ADA include performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working. The decision in Eastman v. Research Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107935(August 1, 2013) (Yohn, J.), demonstrates that an employee with a back injury who would have previously most probably not qualified as disabled before the ADAAA can now qualify as a disabled.

In Eastman, the Plaintiff employee filed an ADA disability action alleging that she was terminated because she was disabled. The employee’s duties as a clinical research associate included monitoring clinical trials, conducting site visits, insuring compliance with clinical trial protocol by physicians, and participating in conference calls. She developed back pain and had difficulty walking, bending, moving, lifting her legs, and changing physical position, and notified her manager. While on a site visit to a doctor, the Plaintiff employee advised the doctor she had hurt her back. The doctor offered to examine her and diagnosed her with musculoskeletal back pain, instructed her to continue taking over-the-counter medication and gave her a Valium. The same day during a teleconference call with her manager, the Plaintiff discussed her back pain and said she had taken a Valium given to her by the doctor. During the call the Plaintiff was laughing, and told her manager that she was a bit off and “knocked off her feet.” The manager notified human resources and ultimately Plaintiff was fired and advised that she engaged in unprofessional behavior and violated the drug free work place policy.

In Eastman, the court noted that to qualify as disabled under the ADA a Plaintiff must show she can met the ADA’s definition of disability, perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations and suffer an adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination/disability. The Court noted that the ADAAA requires a “less searching analysis” of whether a plaintiff is “substantially limited” and the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity requires an individualized assessment. Ultimately, whether an individual is substantially limited as to a major life activity is a question of fact. While the Defendant argued that Plaintiff’s back pain was non-permanent, the Court noted that, the duration of a disability is a relevant consideration, and that while temporary, non-chronic conditions may not qualify as disabilities, after the ADAAA became law, new EEOC regulations explicitly state that the effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be “substantially limiting” and even an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability, if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.

In Eastman, the court noted that there was sufficient evidence that the employee’s back pain was not of an insignificant duration and under the EEOC’s and ADAAA’s guidance, “substantially limits” is “not meant to be a demanding standard.” Thus, the court found that given the broad purpose of the ADAAA and guidance from the EEOC, the temporal duration of the back pain did not preclude a finding that the back impairment “substantially limits” major life activities. Accordingly, under the less restrictive standard of the ADAAA, the court concluded there was sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of fact as to whether the employee was disabled at the time she was terminated. The court also found that because the employee was terminated when the employer discovered she was having back issues, there was temporal proximity and since the defendant offered no evidence that the employer had problems with the employee’s job performance prior to the termination, it could be suggested that she may have been fired because of her back problems.

Eastman also demonstrates that an employer who takes inconsistent positions on the reason for termination will have a problem in court. While in its motion for summary judgment, one of defendant’s alleged legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating plaintiff was that she was fired was for violating the employer’s drug policy, at an unemployment hearing and as part of an internal investigation, the employer stated that she was not fired for violating the drug policy. The court concluded that there was sufficient evidence of pretext to allow the case to proceed to trial because the law provides that “If a plaintiff demonstrates that the reasons given for her termination did not remain consistent, beginning at the time they were proffered and continuing throughout the proceedings, this may be viewed as evidence tending to show pretext. Consequently, looking at the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and drawing all inferences in her favor, plaintiff’s evidence could potentially persuade a jury that defendant’s reasons for termination were pretextual.

For more information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, Disability Discrimination and Abramson Employment Law see http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-1126511.html

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Filed under Americans with Disabilities Act - Disability Discrimination

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