Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Great Disability Rights Opinion From Seventh Circuit For Employees And Their Lawyers

November 3rd, 2009 | Ellen Simon

Employee With MS Wins Appeal In Seventh Circuit “Regarded As” Disability Decision

A case was decided by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last week that was an important victory for the employee as well as his lawyers.

In Brunker v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. the Court reversed judgment in favor of Schwan’s on Brunker’s disability claim. It also reversed the lower court’s testy imposition of sanctions against Brunker’s lawyers.

What Happened In The Case.

Frank Brunker worked as a delivery driver for Schwan’s delivering frozen food to its customers. In February of 2003, Brunker started experiencing shaking of his hands, slurred speech, dizziness, light headedness, and headaches.

The symptoms continued, Brunker went to the doctor, tests were taken, and Brunker was told that he might have multiple sclerosis.

Brunker went on disability leave for two months. Eventually, he went back to light duty work, and then back to work without any restrictions by his physician. He performed his job and was able to complete his route in the same manner as he had in the past.

Four months later, Brunker told his supervisor that he wanted to go to the Mayo Clinic for some tests. Around the same time, he stared to get written up for various performance issues.

When Brunker returned two weeks later, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his supervisor fired him citing “unsatisfactory performance” and “unable to perform essential job functions” on the termination form.

(Notably, Brunker’s supervisor backdated the termination form to September 9, the day Brunker left for the clinic and before his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.)

Brunker filed a claim in federal court for disability discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The lower court (N.D. Indiana) threw out the case and in an unusual move, sanctioned Brunker’s lawyers because of their discovery requests (attempts to get evidence to prove their case).

The Seventh Circuit Reverses

It would be tempting to go in to all of the reasons why the lower court’s opinion was just flat out wrong, but some of them don’t matter anymore since the Americans With Disabilities Act was amended to prevent precisely this result.

Multiple Sclerosis Is A Disability

The first part of the lower court’s ruling pronounced that Brunker had no claim because he was not disabled. In other words, the fact that he had multiple sclerosis didn’t matter, according to the court — even if that’s why he was fired — because MS was not a disability.

The court’s logic was based on case law developed under the ADA which left millions of people with disabilities unprotected from employment discrimination.

Fortunately,  the ADA was amended this past year. Under the new act, multiple sclerosis would be considered a disability (and should have been under the old act as well) so a judge theoretically should not be able to throw the case out on similar grounds. (the court did not address the amended ADA because the case was filed before it was passed)

(For information on new regulations proposed under the amended ADA see the article in the Connecticut Employment Law Blog)

Being Regarded As Disabled Is A Violation Of The ADA

Under the ADA (both the old act and the new one) a person has a claim for disability discrimination if he or she is subjected to an adverse employment decision because he or she is regarded as disabled.

To prove disability discrimination under a “regarded as” theory the employee can win by proving that:

  • The employer mistakenly believes that the employee has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or
  • The employer mistakenly believes that an existing impairment, which is not actually limiting, does substantially limit a major life activity (functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working)

In this case, the Court of Appeals decided that Brunker presented enough evidence that he was fired because Schwan’s regarded him as being disabled. In reversing the lower court, the Court of Appeals stated:

The record contains adequate evidence to support a theory that Schwan’s regarded Brunker as being disabled in the major life activities of walking, caring for himself, and speaking.

For example, the day before he left for the Mayo Clinic, Schwan”s issued Brunker multiple corrective action reports, including a dress code violation, suggesting that Schwan’s did not believe that Brunker was able to care for himself because of his apparent conditions.

Furthermore, Schwan’s disciplined him even though other employees were not cited for similar violations.

As to Schwan’s motive, the Court of Appeals had this to say:

Schwan’s fired Brunker immediately after he returned from treatment, but Schwan’s backdated the termination notice to before he left for the clinic, evidently hoping to avoid the impression that his apparent condition influenced Schwan’s decision to terminate him.

These facts are sufficient to create a triable question as to whether Schwan’s regarded Bunker as disabled when it fired him.

The Court Reverses Sanctions Against The Lawyers

It’s typical in these kinds of lawsuits for lawyers representing employees to request documents from the employer defendant to either prove their case  or disprove the defendant’s case. It not only typical; it is absolutely allowed the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

In what I can only say is a quirky, outlandish, and mean-spirited ruling, the trial court in this case imposed sanctions on Brunker’s lawyers because they pressed to get the information they believed necessary to properly represent their client.

For example, the lawyers asked for records on whether Schawn disciplined other employees who failed to follow its dress code or to keep accurate route books (some of the reasons give for the discharge).

A request to see co-employees personnel files in order to prove unequal  treatment or whether what the company is stating is true (pretext) is quite standard, but in this case the lawyers were sanctioned for making it.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the information was relevant to Brunker’s disparate treatment claim since it related to the even handedness of the company’s expectations.

The Court also criticized the company’s lawyers for refusing to produce the requested documents and then using them to support their defense.

The Court said:

Indeed Schwan’s went further than merely raising an issue it had previously argued was irrelevant.

It faulted Brunker for failing to identify any route manager who had “similar performance issues” and was treated more favorably.

And Schwan’s also discussed the route manager who was terminated for failing to service customers, despite Schwan’s successful opposition to Brunker’s request for his personnel file.

Similarly,  Schwan denied the relevance of the personnel file of another former employee, Mike Devereaux, but then used parts of that file in the summary judgment reply.

Through its actions, Schwan’s concedes that the bulk Brunker’s requests were substantially justified. We therefore vacate the award of sanctions.

Conclusion

This case is a great win for both Mr. Brunker and his lawyers. He obviously had grounds to bring a case claiming that he was terminated because of his disability – and every right to have that case heard by a jury.

As far as the lawyers go, it’s always very difficult to get companies to produce the documents we need to prove our cases. Companies control the records in these cases and they do not give them up easily even when they are plainly relevant.

At the same time there is no doubt that lawyers representing employees have to get those documents both to support our clients claims and test the employers’ defenses. It’s simply a battle that must be fought.

The fact that these lawyers were punished for doing what they needed to do for proper representation of their client is plainly wrong. Fortunately, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

images: www.pocketyourdollars.com bowtielaw.files.wordpress.com

This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on November 1, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome

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