Case Law / Legal Brief
A project of the Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. LHC Group Inc.

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
773 F.3d 688 (5th Cir. 2014)

Keywords: Title I of the ADA, employment, qualified employee, reasonable accommodation, termination, discrimination, summary judgment

Summary

Kristy Sones, a registered nurse, was hired by LHC to work as a field nurse, and later also trained for the position of team leader. Her daily duties as a field nurse included driving a car to visit patients. During work she had a grand mal seizure. Her doctor released her to work with the restriction of no driving for one year. After her return to work, LHC confronted Mrs. Sones regarding problems related to her computer skills and other performance deficiencies. Later, after Ms. Sones missed a day of work without approval and LHC received a complaint from a patient, LHC decided to terminate her employment. When doing so, LHC allegedly told her that it was letting her go because she was a liability to the company.   In September 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that LHC failed to accommodate Ms. Sones and discriminated against her based on her disability, and brought a claim on her behalf under Title I of the ADA.

The district court found in favor of LHC, granting summary judgment for LHC and holding that a reasonable jury would not find there was enough evidence to show that Ms. Sones was actually qualified for the job of field nurse or team leader due to her inability to drive. Summary judgement is a decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial.  Under the ADA, to avoid summary judgment the EEOC and Ms. Sones must show that either Ms. Sones could perform the essential functions of the job in spite of her disability or that a reasonable accommodation of her disability would have enabled her to perform the essential functions of the job. The EEOC and Ms. Sones appealed this decision to the Fifth Circuit. Based on the somewhat circumstance evidence presented by both parties, the Fifth Circuit held that a jury could have reasonably found Ms. Sones could perform the job of team leader and that LHC could have provided a reasonable accommodation that would have enabled Ms. Sones to perform her job.

Facts of the Case

Ms. Sones was hired by LHC Group, Inc. as a field nurse in December, 2006. Field nurses provide home health care to patients, which requires driving a car to visit patients.  In March 2009, Ms. Sones was trained as a team leader. Team leaders manage patient care, schedule field nurses, fill in when nurses are absent, and communicate with patients’ doctors and pharmacists. There is a dispute between the two parties as to whether Ms. Sones was actually promoted to the position of team leader. During work on May 26, 2009, Ms. Sones had a grand mal seizure. Her doctor released her to work with restrictions, which included not driving for one year.  When Ms. Sones returned to work, she alleges that her anti-seizure medication made her very tired and caused memory problems. She also alleged that she asked her supervisor for extra help with the computer-related requirements of her job including remember passwords and using scheduling software. According to Ms. Sones, when she requested this assistance, her supervisor just walked away. On June 19, 2009, Ms. Sones met with her supervisors to discuss her performance. Subpar computer skills, errors while working with patients in the field, and communication and scheduling issues were brought to Ms. Sones’s attention. July 31, 2009 was set as the “target date” to “master” these issues. According to the EEOC charge, Ms. Sones’ immediate supervisor, on the same day, told Ms. Sones that “if [her] disability manifested again while [Ms. Sones] was on the job, [LHC] would be in trouble.”

On June 22, 2009 Ms. Sones missed work without prior approval and LHC received a complaint from a patient. LHC decided to terminate her employment. When doing so, on June 24, 2009, a human resources representative from LHC allegedly informed Ms. Sones that she was being terminated because she was a liability to the company. In September 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that LHC failed to accommodate Ms. Sones and discriminated against her based on her disability, and brought a claim on her behalf under Title I of the ADA. The district court found in favor of LHC, holding that a reasonable jury would not find there was enough evidence to show that Ms. Sones was actually qualified for job of field nurse or team leader due to her inability to drive. The EEOC and Ms. Sones appealed this decision to the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit did not affirm the lower court’s decision to grant LHC summary judgment, and found that there were several issues of fact that a jury would need to determine including whether driving was an essential function of the job of team leader; whether LHC could have reasonably accommodated Ms. Sones’ inability to drive in the team leader role; and whether LHC could have accommodated Ms. Sones’ difficulties with the essential computer and communication duties of a team leader.

Issues of the Case

  1. Did the EEOC and Ms. Sones have enough evidence to establish a disability discrimination claim against LHC, and to survive summary judgment?

Arguments & Analysis

In order to survive summary judgment for the employer in a disability discrimination claim under the ADA, an employee must first show that he or she has a disability, that she is a qualified individual, and that his or her disability was the basis for the unlawful employment action. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals analyzed different methods plaintiffs had used in the past to establish a disability discrimination claim.

Here there was no issue as to whether Ms. Sones had a disability. There were however, questions regarding whether Ms. Sones was a qualified individual and whether her disability was the basis for the unlawful employment action (her termination).

The Fifth Circuit found that there were questions of fact as to whether Ms. Sones had been promoted to team leader and what the essential job functions of the team leader position were. Specifically there was a question as to whether driving was an essential function of the team leader position as Ms. Sones indicated that team leaders drove far less often than field nurses, and staff from LHC testified that many team leader tasks were performed in the branch office.  Further the Fifth Circuit found questions of fact as to whether LHC could have reasonably accommodated Ms. Sones’ inability to drive, as the team leader job description indicated that travel could be done “via car or public transportation.” Additionally, the Fifth Circuit found there were questions of fact as to whether LHC could have accommodated Ms. Sones’ difficulties with the essential computer and communications duties of a team leader.  LHC maintained that Ms. Sones’ poor performance was an issue even prior to her seizure and related medication side effects. The EEOC highlighted that her supervisors criticized her performance only after her seizure and claimed the criticisms were exaggerated and unfounded. While it’s evident that Ms. Sones struggled, the Fifth Circuit found that it was LHC’s duty as an employer to work with Ms. Sones toward a reasonable accommodation—especially since she reached out to a supervisor.

Finally the Fifth Circuit discussed that there was enough evidence to show that Ms. Sones could have been discriminated against due to her disability. The Fifth Circuit discussed indicated that in past decisions, there was a discrepancy as to how an employee can show that his or her disability was the basis for the unlawful employment action, also known as the “causal element.”

  1. One line of cases required the employee to show “that he [or she] was subject to an adverse employment decision on account of disability” (emphasis added).
  2. The second line of cases required the employee to prove that he or she (a) was subject to an adverse employment action and (b) was replaced by a non-disabled person, or was treated less favorably than non-disabled employees.
  3. The third line of cases required employees to show that they were subjected to an adverse employment action on account of disability or the perception of disability and were replaced by or treated less favorably than non-disabled employees.

The Fifth Circuit resolved this conflict among previous decisions and ultimately found that to establish the causal element, the employee can show that the employee’s disability played a role in the employer’s decision making process and had a determinative influence on the outcome.   

The Fifth Circuit found that the EEOC could show that Ms. Sones “was subject to an adverse employment decision on account of [her] disability.” It is undisputed that Sones suffered an adverse employment action-namely, termination. See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a) (“No covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to ... discharge of employees....”).

To show nexus, the EEOC emphasized that Sones’ supervisors criticized her performance only after her seizure and that these criticisms were “exaggerated, unfounded, or fabricated.” It also points to LHC’s comment that they were firing her because she was a liability to the company. Similar statements appear in Sones’ EEOC charge: I was told “that if my disability manifested again while I was on the job, [LHC] would be in trouble,” and “told that I was terminated because I have become a liability to [LHC] because of my disability.”

When viewed in the light most favorable to Ms. Sones, the chronology of the criticism Ms. Sones received and the comments her supervisors made as they were letting her go raise a genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether Ms. Sones was fired on account of her disability.

Rulings

The Fifth Circuit found that in order to establish a prima facie case of discriminatory termination under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove (1) that he or she has a disability, (2) that he or she is qualified for the job, and (3) that he or she was subjected to an adverse employment action on account of his disability. The Fifth Circuit held that the EEOC provided enough evidence to survive summary judgment, and that the case should proceed to a full trial.

Policy & Practice

EEOC v. LHC illustrates that circumstantial evidence on the causal element may be used to defeat a motion for summary judgment. The (disputed) chronology of criticism the employee received after her seizure and the (disputed) comment that she constituted a liability to the company going forward. That disputed evidence was sufficient to survive LHC’s motion for summary judgment, as there was enough evidence that reasonable jury could have found that discrimination occurred --- that Ms. Sones was a qualified for the job of team leader, and that LHC could have provided her with a reasonable accommodation to perform the duties of team leader.

Links

Disclaimer:

These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time.  In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.

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