Smoking Gun

Today’s blog entry discusses two cases, both dealing with smoking guns (hence, the cannon above).

One is from the Sixth Circuit, Baum v. Metro Restoration Services, Inc., Decided on April 11, 2019. The other is EEOC v. Crain Automotive Holdings LLC from the Eastern District of Arkansas, also decided on April 11, 2019. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories, and they are: Crain’s facts; Crain’s reasoning; Crain’s takeaways; Baum’s facts; Baum’s reasoning; and Baum takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.

I

Crain Facts Taken Directly From The Opinion

Judith Vaughn began working for Crain Automotive Holdings, LLC in the fall of 2016. Vaughn suffers from anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Late in the day on Monday, January 30, 2017, Vaughn began experiencing chest pains and went to the emergency room, fearing she was having a heart attack. After two days of treatment Vaughn learned her chest pain had been the result of a panic attack. She ultimately reported back to work on Friday, but she began experiencing a panic attack and left work, after emailing her supervisor. When Vaughn returned to work the following Tuesday, she met with two supervisors, Kim Lynch and Debbie Pumphrey, and was terminated. According to Vaughn, she was told at this meeting that “it was not working out” due to her health problems and that she needed to take care of herself.

II

Crain’s Reasoning

  1. McDonnell-Douglas only applies where a plaintiff does not have direct evidence of discrimination.
  2. Direct evidence is evidence showing a specific link between the discriminatory intent and the adverse employment action sufficient for a reasonable jury to find an illegitimate criterion actually motivated the adverse employment action.
  3. Where direct evidence of discrimination exists, a plaintiff gets to the jury based on that evidence alone.
  4. No dispute that Vaughn has anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. With respect to her panic attacks, those attacks make her feel paralyzed, cause chest pain, and cause difficulty with breathing, thinking, communicating with others, and reasoning. Her anxiety causes her to have difficulty breathing and communicating and an inability to think coherently. Finally, when her depression is active, she is unable to care for herself, communicate with others, or think coherently.
  5. It doesn’t matter that Vaughn can perform some demanding activities and that she does not have panic attacks constantly because an impairment substantially limiting one major life activity does not need to substantially limit other major life activities in order to be considered a substantially limiting impairment. Also, episodic impairments are a disability when they substantially limit a major life activity when active. Finally, Toyota Motor’s definition of substantial limitation was overruled by the amendments to the ADA [my words, but what the court essentially said].
  6. The evidence presented by the EEOC makes clear that Vaughn’s employer was on notice that she had anxiety, depression, and had suffered a panic attack. She also had put the employer on notice that she had had a heart catheterization. Accordingly, a reasonable jury could find that when Vaughn was fired the following Tuesday, the employer certainly knew about her anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Further, the jury could find that the employer had some knowledge of the extent of Vaughn’s impairments as they had caused her chest pain resulting in a heart catheterization as well as missing several days of work.
  7. Actions or remarks by employers reflecting a discriminatory attitude or comments that demonstrate a discriminatory intent (the legal jargon is animus), in the decisional process, or comments made by individuals closely involved in employment decisions may all constitute direct evidence of discrimination.
  8. At the meeting between Vaughn and her two supervisors to talk about why she had left work early, Vaughn was specifically told that “due to her health, it wasn’t going to work out and she should take time for herself.” If believed by the jury, and it is the jury’s call, the comment is direct evidence of discrimination that would enable a jury to find the employer motivated by Vaughn’s disability when it fired her.
  9. The supervisor’s comment is a far cry from stray remarks in the workplace for several reasons: 1) it was made during the meeting in which Vaughn was fired; 2) it was made by Vaughn’s supervisor; 3) it relates directly to the decision to fire the plaintiff; and 4) no reason exists to suspect that the suggestion that the Vaughn should take care of her health or take time for herself was made with the intent of attempting to preserve and promote her as she was fired in the same conversation.
  10. Magic words are simply not required when it comes to requesting a reasonable accommodation. Instead, all a plaintiff has to do is make clear to the employer that he or she wants assistance for his or her disability. That is, an employee only needs to provide the employer with enough information that, under the circumstances, the employer can be fairly said to know about the disability and the desire for an accommodation. A question of material fact exists here because plaintiff produced an email in which she stated that a letter from her doctor was attached.

III

Crain Takeaways

  1. This whole direct evidence/indirect evidence gets really confusing. Previously, I talked about that confusion and how Seventh Circuit may or may not have have done away with the whole thing.
  2. Whether you are going with direct evidence or indirect evidence, it is clear that mixed motive is involved as both tests use motivating factor.
  3. The amendments to the ADA change what substantial limitation means and it also changed dealing with episodic impairments.
  4. Labor and employment lawyers are quite fond of saying that magic words are not required. The problem is what does that exactly mean? This case does a real nice job of presenting a standard for when a reasonable accommodation request has been made where magic words are not used. In particular, all the employee has to do is make clear to the employer that he or she wants assistance for his or her disability. That, is also vague, but the court goes further when it says, citing to an Eighth Circuit case, “an employee need only provide the employer with enough information that, under the circumstances, the employer can be fairly said to know about the disability and desire for an accommodation.”

IV

Baum Facts Taken from the Opinion

A few months after Plaintiff Jonathan Baum began having heart problems, his employer, Defendant Metro Restoration Services, fired him. Not only that, Metro’s owner told him he was losing his job because of his health issues. So, Baum sued for disability discrimination, and the district court granted summary judgment in Metro’s favor after concluding that Baum couldn’t establish he was disabled.

Metro repairs property damage after catastrophic events such as storms and fires. In 2013, the company hired Baum as a scheduler. As the job title suggests, Baum determined which of Metro’s work crews would go to which job sites and when they would go. In late 2014, Baum began having heart problems. Over the course of several months, he went to the emergency room fearing he had had a heart attack; had a CAT scan; had a heart catheter implanted; had an echocardiogram (which outlines the heart’s movement using high-frequency sound waves); and wore a heart monitor for more than a month. During this time, he occasionally missed work for medical tests and treatments. He also worked remotely sometimes. He kept his boss and owner of Metro, Patrick Cahill, informed of his medical issues. One weekend in the spring of 2015, severe weather hit. Baum worked remotely to coordinate Metro’s crews. The next week, Cahill went to Baum’s home and fired him. During their conversation, Cahill said he was firing Baum “due to [Baum’s] health issues and doctors’ appointments.” Baum then sued Metro in state court for disability discrimination under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and Kentucky law. Metro removed the case to federal court.

V

Baum Court’s Reasoning

  1. Cahill’s statement that he was firing the plaintiff because of his health issues is direct evidence of discrimination.
  2. Since direct evidence of discrimination exists, plaintiff has to show that: 1) he has a disability; and 2) he is otherwise qualified for the job despite the disability either without accommodation, with an alleged essential job requirement eliminated, or with a proposed reasonable accommodation. (For the labor and employment lawyer really familiar with the ADA, I know what you are thinking. This is not a misprint).
  3. Metro never contested plaintiff’s qualifications for the job without accommodations, and therefore, forfeited the argument by failing to raise the argument earlier than at oral argument.
  4. Expert testimony is needed to show whether the plaintiff is substantially limited in the major life activities of cardiovascular and circulatory functions because cardiovascular and circulatory functions require medical knowledge to understand.
  5. Absent medical expert testimony, the plaintiff can’t create a factual issue of whether he has a disability. Accordingly, summary judgment was correctly granted on that score.
  6. With respect to the perceived disability claim, a plaintiff does not need to prove a limitation on a major life activity.
  7. Cahill’s words v. the plaintiff’s word creates a classic credibility dispute that is a task for the jury.
  8. While it is true that Cahill’s knowledge of plaintiff’s medical issues is not sufficient to carry the day, plaintiff has more than that here. In particular, he has Cahill’s stated reason for firing him: his health issues and doctors appointments. That statement creates a factual dispute and makes it material. Accordingly, giving the plaintiff the benefit of the doubt, which a court has to do at the summary judgment stage, a jury could find that Cahill meant exactly what he said. If the jury found such, then it could also find that Cahill perceived the plaintiff to have a physical impairment and fired him because of that perception.

VI

Baum Takeaways

  1. I am completely mystified by the court saying that one of the ways to show a plaintiff is otherwise qualified is to show that he can do the job with an essential job requirement eliminated. That simply isn’t the way the ADA works. The ADA does not require an employer to eliminate essential job functions. An employer may be required to engage in job restructuring, which we discussed here. They also may want to move marginal functions to others. That said, job restructuring and putting marginal functions on others are not the same as eliminating essential job requirements.
  2. If you have an argument, raise it early. We just discussed that problem here.
  3. A person may lose an actual disability case, but may be able to go forward on a regarded as claim.
  4. Sometimes you need expert medical testimony to establish whether a substantial limitation on a major life activity exists even though what is a substantial limitation on a major life activity is a much easier standard to meet since the amendments to the ADA.
  5. Direct evidence must be material to the adverse action.

A comment that applies equally to Baum and to Crain is that smoking guns are rare, but they do happen.

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