A new federal appeals court case has made it easier for employees in the 5th Circuit (which covers Texas employers and employees) to sue for disability discrimination.
To prove disability discrimination, employees need to show only that the disability was a “motivating factor” in an employment decision, not the sole cause. If disability “actually plays a role” in the employer’s decision-making process, then the employer discriminated based on disability.
Recent case: Robert Pinkerton, who suffers from arthrogryposis, a developmental abnormality syndrome causing short limbs and deformed joints, went to work for the Department of Energy as an equal opportunity specialist. He was hired as a part of an initiative to recruit more disabled individuals into federal employment. He is visibly disabled.
After 17 years, Pinkerton was fired for allegedly unacceptable performance. He sued and the case went to a jury trial. The court asked the jury to decide whether Pinkerton was discharged “solely because of his disability.” The jury said he was not and Pinkerton appealed.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said the trial court used the wrong standard. Under both the ADA and the federal Rehabilitation Act, the correct question juries must answer is whether the disability played any role in the employment decision. It does not have to be the sole cause. The court ordered a new jury trial using the more liberal standard. (Pinkerton v. Spellings, et al., No. 06-10657, 5th Cir., 2008)
Final note: This ruling makes it more important than ever for HR and to have objective, substantiated and well-documented reasons for every employment decision. Expect disabled employees and applicants to file more lawsuits, hoping to prove that disability was at least a motivating factor for a lost job or a promotion denial.
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