Two years ago, I discussed in this blog entry the issue of whether ADA claims survive. In that case, the court looked to local law to decide whether the ADA claim survived. Today’s case, Guenther v. Griffin C  Inc., goes one further by holding that it isn’t local law that decides whether claims for compensatory damages under the ADA survive, rather it is a uniform federal rule that applies. Before proceeding further, keep in mind that my prior blog entry on survivability was a title III case, while this blog entry concerns a title I case. As is typical, my blog entry is divided into categories: facts; issue, court’s reasoning, and takeaways. The reader is free to read any or all of the categories.

I

Facts:

The facts are pretty straightforward. Plaintiff oversaw construction projects across Arkansas and Texas for four years for Griffin Construction. In the spring of 2012, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He requested and received roughly 3 weeks of leave from work to receive treatment and returned to work when it appeared the treatment was successful. In 2013, plaintiff learned that the cancer had spread throughout his body. He notified his employer that he would need to take another three weeks of leave to undergo radiation therapy. Griffin Construction then fired him and told him he could reapply for any openings in the future if he wished. Despite promises they made to the contrary, Griffin Construction also immediately canceled his insurance policies. He filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. From filing to the time the EEOC reached its conclusion that reasonable cause existed, 20 months transpired, and plaintiff had died 12 months previously. Accordingly, the special administrator of his estate filed suit under title I of the ADA and the defendant responded by claiming that the plaintiff’s claim did not survive his death. The District Court bought that argument after applying Arkansas law, and the plaintiff appealed.

II

Issue

Regardless of State Law, Does a Claim for Compensatory Damages under the ADA Survive a Plaintiff’s Death?

III

Court’s Reasoning

In Reversing the District Court and Holding that Regardless of State Law, a Claim for Compensatory Damages under the ADA Automatically Survives a Plaintiff’s Death, the Court Reasoned as Follows:

  1. Whether a federal claim survives is a question of federal law.
  2. Congress did not supply any answer to how courts should treat survivability of ADA claims and there is no general survival statute for federal question cases.
  3. Survival questions are governed by federal common law when there is no expression of contrary intent from Congress. However, the devil is in the details. That is, sometimes it is best to incorporate state law, while at other times, a uniform rule is best.
  4. State law should not be incorporated where doing so frustrates specific objectives of the federal program. That is, federal courts have to be vigilant in order to ensure that application of state law poses no significant threat to any identifiable federal policy or interest.
  5. 1983 actions and the approach they take to survivability doesn’t apply to ADA because in §1983 matters Congress clearly expressed a preference for state law. Further, the Supreme Court case holding as such clearly stated that their holding would have no independent adverse effect on the policies underlying §1983, which is not the case with the ADA if the Eighth Circuit held similarly.
  6. Abatement of compensatory ADA claims pose a special threat to enforcement because the very nature of the ADA makes it more likely than would be typically the case for an aggrieved party to die before the case is completed given the health issues which bring a person with a disability under the statute’s protection. That is, ADA claims specifically involve plaintiff with disabilities alleging they were discriminated against because of their disability. The ADA was specifically passed to eradicate discrimination against persons with disabilities, some of whom may be targeted precisely because of his or her poor health. Following state law to allow claims to abate when the aggrieved party dies gets in the way of this broad remedial purpose. In a footnote, the court notes that this is not a fanciful situation. With respect to filing a title I claim, a plaintiff has to first exhaust the administrative process. In this case, the exhaustion took two years. Further, it is quite conceivable that defendants may prolong litigation with the hope that the claim would abate. This type of thinking is contrary to the overall purpose of the ADA.
  7. State law is not suited to fill gaps in federal law where the scheme in question evidences a distinct need for nationwide legal standards.
  8. The ADA embodied Congress’s attempt to create a comprehensive national mandate with the federal government having a central role in enforcing consistent standards. For example, in Clackamas, which we discussed in this blog entry, the United States Supreme Court created a uniform definition for an employee under the ADA.
  9. In many states, such as Iowa for example, the plaintiff’s claim would have survived.
  10. Both Congress’s call for a national mandate with consistent standards and the desire to affect evenhanded application of the ADA’s antidiscrimination provisions weigh in favor of a uniform federal rule.
  11. There is a critical difference between a statute of limitations and a survivorship statute. With respect to statute of limitations, they do not entirely bar a diligent plaintiff. On the other hand, a survivorship statute is an absolute barrier to a plaintiff and to his or her estate who does everything he or she can to assert his or her rights. Further, in the statute of limitations situation, there is an element of control by the plaintiff, but that is not the case with respect to survivorship matters.
  12. Federal courts have historically applied a well-established uniform rule to address survivorship.
  13. It may be inappropriate to conclude that Congress would choose to adopt state rules at odds with the purpose or operation of federal law.
  14. With respect to the ADA, it is federal law and not state law that is the dominant source of disability antidiscrimination law. To have a uniform rule would not require fashioning an entire body of law out of nothing. Further, allowing claims to survive would not upset the employer-employee balance struck by state laws because federal law and many state laws already prohibit discrimination.
  15. The court takes no view on whether a claim for punitive damages survives, especially since it is traditional federal common law that penal claims abate on death.
  16. The court also took no position whether a claim under any other federal scheme warranty uniform rule of survivorship.

IV

Takeaways:

  1. Courts continue to use “because of,” language and not “on the basis of,” language when it comes to referring to causation in title I of the ADA matters. As we have discussed numerous times previously, such as here, the two standards are not the same.
  2. Despite the difference in standard for getting compensatory damages under title II of the ADA, this court’s reasoning could have equal application to survival of compensatory damages claims arising under title II of the ADA.
  3. It is a bit more complicated with respect to title III claims, since the only relief a person can get is injunctive relief and attorneys fees. Even so, if you are a plaintiff and the survival statute of a state would abate a title III claim, it would still be worth using this case to see if that statute could not be circumvented.
  4. If on the defense side on a title II or title III matter in this case comes up, it would be worthwhile to argue that neither of those titles contain an exhaustion requirement. With respect to title II it is even possible, as discussed here, that a plaintiff may not even be able to go DOJ for redress in the first place.

Since I am in the Atlanta area, Go Falcons!

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