The United States Court of Appeals recently considered two issues in an employee’s disability discrimination lawsuit: (1) whether a discharged employee could proceed with his claim of disability discrimination even though he did not present medical evidence that his disability affected a major life activity, and (2) whether the jury received erroneous instructions regarding causation on the employee’s claims of retaliatory discharge and discharge because of a perceived disability. (Head v. Glacier Northwest Inc. (2005 Daily Journal D.A.R. 8159, 05 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 5943, 16 A.D. Cases 1606, C.A. 9 (Or.), July 6, 2005))
The Court of Appeals held (1) that an employee’s own testimony about the effect of his disability on a major life activity may be enough to raise a question of fact to present to a jury; and (2) that a jury should be instructed that an employer violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if the employer’s reason for discharging an employee is motivated, even in part, by animus based on the employee’s disability or his request for an accommodation.
Employer, Glacier Northwest Incorporated, fired Employee, Matthew Head, allegedly because he violated the company’s equipment abuse policy when he damaged a loader by getting it stuck in the mud. Employee, who had been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder, sued Employer claiming it violated the ADA by firing him because he was disabled, had a record of a disability, was perceived as having a disability, or had requested a reasonable accommodation of his disability. Because Employee did not present expert evidence that his disability affected a major life activity, the trial court ruled against him on the claims of discrimination because of disability or a record of disability. The trial court permitted Employee to proceed to jury trial on his claims of discrimination based on a perceived disability and retaliation for requesting a reasonable accommodation. Following a verdict in favor of Employer, Employee appealed to the United States Court of Appeals.
Appellate Court Decision
The Court of Appeals concluded that Employee did not need to present medical evidence that his disability substantially impaired a major life activity; his own testimony was enough to raise a question of fact to present to a jury. Moreover, his statements were not merely self-serving, but contained sufficient detail to convey substantial impairment of the major life activities of sleeping (he had great difficulty sleeping at night with some improvement when using sleep medication), interacting with others (he avoided crowds, stores, large family gatherings, doctor’s appointments, and telephone calls, and leaving his house for weeks on end), and thinking (his short-term memory and ability to concentrate were greatly affected, he had to be repeatedly reminded of appointments and tasks, and he had to quit school because he could not focus or concentrate adequately). For the first time, the Court of Appeals also recognized that reading, which is often necessary to perform major life activities such as caring for oneself, learning, and working, is a major life activity because it is central to people’s daily lives. As with sleeping, interacting with others, and thinking, Employee stated that his ability to read was substantially impaired (he could not read for more than three to five minutes at a time, and written material would become jumbled if he looked at it for too long). The Court concluded that the trial court should not have granted judgment to Employer without a trial on Employee’s claims of discrimination based on disability and record of a disability.
The Court next turned to the question of whether the trial court had correctly instructed the jury. The trial court instructed the jury that Employee had to prove that Employer discharged him “because of” a perceived disability or “solely because of” the request for accommodation. The Court held this was erroneous, and that the trial court should have instructed the jury that Employer was liable for discrimination if Employee proved that its decision to fire him was “motivated, even in part, by animus based on [a perceived disability] or request for an accommodation.”
The Court of Appeals therefore sent the case back for further proceedings on all of Employee’s theories of discrimination.