When an employee with a long history of service to an employer is terminated after developing a disability, shortly after requesting workplace accommodations, determination of the employer’s motivation is often left to a jury. In Gumina v. Rite Aid Corp., No. 3:14-CV-99, 2015 WL 4545465 (M.D. Pa. July 28, 2015), a long-term Rite Aid store manager filed a lawsuit for disability discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). The employer admitted that the employee had an extensive work history as being well-organized with a friendly, good personality, never received complaints from staff or customers, and good communication skills. For the most part had “exceptional” or “above expectations” annual performance reviews. The employee was diagnosed with severe arthritis in both knees which impaired his ability to stand and walk around the store.
In Gumina,the employer issued a Written Counseling to the employee advising him that his store had “fallen behind” and that he must make immediate and sustained improvement which was the first disciplinary action he had received in more than 20 years of employment, thereafter the employee received a Final Written Warning advising him that his job performance had not improved since the Written Counseling and that he “must be able to meet and perform all of the responsibilities in his job description. In the same time frame the employer was seeking information from the employee’s treating physician concerning (1) how long he would be able to stand and/or walk through the store without a break; (2) how frequently he would be able to stoop, kneel, crouch and/or crawl; and (3) whether he could occasionally climb stairs and/or ladders. The physician responded that the employee could stand and walk for ten to fifteen minutes before his knee pain became severe; bend briefly but not all the way to the floor because of unsteady balance; and could climb incline stairs one at a time slowly provided a sturdy hand railing was available; and that he should not attempt to climb ladders. Shortly thereafter, the employee received a letter advising him that his employment was terminated because the employer claimed that he could not meet the requirements of the job. While the Court noted that there is no dispute that the employee was unable to meet several of the “Physical Demands” in the job description, the employee has made several job accommodation requests including being transferred to a position in which he would walk and stand less as long as he did not have to travel more than one hour to the job site, and adding some hourly employee hours at the store so that other employees could perform certain tasks.
To state a prima facie case under the ADA, an employee must establish that he (1) has a disability (2) is a “qualified individual”, and (3) has suffered an adverse employment decision as a result of that disability. To be a “qualified individual” an employee must demonstrate that with or without reasonable accommodation, he can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” In Gumina, the court noted that the case will ultimately be decided by answering whether the employee has the physical capacity to “perform the essential functions of the position. In order to make this determination the following evidence must be considered: the employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential; written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job; the amount of time spend on the job performing the function; the consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function; and the work experience of others.
In Gumina, the court concluded that reasonable jurors could conclude either way: that the employer’s reasons for firing were born of his inability to perform the essential functions; or that the stated reason for firing Plaintiff was related only to the fact of his disability, a pretextual reason. Thus, the Court denied each parties’ Motion for Summary Judgment and determined that the case must proceed to trial so that a jury could evaluate the competing testimony of the employee and the employer to make the determination.
One other significant issue arose in Gumina regarding the fact that ultimately the employee applied for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. The employer claimed that the fact that the employee received benefits was inconsistent with his assertion that he could perform the job of a Rite Aid store manager with appropriate accommodations. The Court noted that since the Social Security Administration does not take into account the possibility of reasonable accommodation in determining SSDI eligibility, an ADA plaintiff’s claim that he can perform her job with reasonable accommodation may well prove consistent with an SSDI claim that he could not perform his own job or other jobs without it.
For more information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, disability Discrimination, age discrimination and Abramson Employment Law, see http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-1126511.htm, http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-1126515.html.