In July 2004, the Plaintiff, Susan Lewis, started working at Humboldt Manor Nursing Home (“Humboldt Manor”). In September 2005, she developed a medical condition which made it difficult for her to walk and required her to use a wheelchair at times. The medical condition also prevented her from working for one month. On March 20, 2006, Humboldt Manor terminated Ms. Lewis, allegedly because of an “outburst”, which, according to testimony by three employees, consisted of yelling profanely and criticizing Ms. Lewis’ employers. Another employee contradicted this account, testifying that Ms. Lewis was upset but did not act in an inappropriate manner. Ms. Lewis contended that the reason for her termination was her disability, and specifically the use of her wheelchair, and that Humboldt Manner exaggerated the incident as a pretext for her termination.
Ms. Lewis filed suit in federal court, alleging wrongful termination under the ADA. She argued that, in order to show employment discrimination under the ADA, it was only necessary for her to demonstrate that her disability was one “motivating factor” in her employer’s decision to fire her. However, the District Court instructed the jury that it was not enough to show that the plaintiff’s disability was merely a contributing factor to the employer’s firing decision. Instead, the Court stated that the plaintiff must demonstrate that her disability was the “sole reason” for the employer’s decision to terminate her employment. The jury found that Ms. Lewis’ disability was not the sole reason for her termination, primarily because her alleged “outburst” constituted an additional reason, and therefore determined that her ADA claim should fail. Ms. Lewis then appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the District Court’s “solely on the basis of disability” jury instruction was erroneous.
In reviewing Ms. Lewis’ appeal, the Sixth Circuit noted that ten judicial Circuit Courts around the country had addressed the issue of whether a plaintiff is required to demonstrate that their disability was the “sole reason” for their employer’s adverse employment action, or whether they merely need to demonstrate that it was a contributing factor. Of these ten Circuits, eight use the “motivating factor” standard which dictates that a plaintiff’s disability need only be a contributing cause of the adverse employment action for an ADA claim to arise. However, the Sixth Circuit is one of the two circuits that still requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that their disability was the sole cause of the adverse employment action. In reviewing Ms. Lewis’ case, the Sixth Circuit cited prior holdings from the Circuit, such as in Monette v. Electronic Data Systems Corp. (90 F.3d 1173, 1178 (6th Cir. 1996)), which stated that in order to recover on an ADA discrimination claim, a plaintiff must establish that she was terminated solely because of her disability. The Sixth Circuit therefore held that the District Court had not erred in issuing this instruction to the jury, and affirmed the ruling below.
The current case law in the Sixth Circuit requires a jury instruction of sole causation in adverse employment claims brought under the ADA.
[Note: The Sixth Circuit covers the following districts: Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky; Eastern and Western Districts of Michigan; Northern and Southern Districts of Ohio; and Eastern, Middle and Western Districts of Tennessee.]
This case merely affirms the current law in the Sixth Circuit, which states that in ADA employment claims, a plaintiff must establish that the adverse employment action occurred solely because of a plaintiff’s disability. The Sixth Circuit is one of the few Circuits that uses this interpretation of the ADA’s anti-discrimination provisions, which in practice creates a much greater burden for plaintiffs attempting to prove employment discrimination. This is because it is generally easier to demonstrate that a disability was a contributing cause to an adverse employment action than it is to prove that it was the sole motivating cause.
Additionally, it is worth noting that shortly before this case was decided, the Sixth Circuit noted in Lee v. City of Columbus, Ohio (636 F.3d 245 (6th Cir. 2011)) that, unlike the ADA, Rehabilitation Act requires that a plaintiff’s disability must be the sole basis for an adverse employment action in order for a claim to arise. Therefore, in Lee,the Sixth Circuit seemingly indicated that the ADA standard—that disability need only be a contributing factor for determining employment discrimination—was more lenient than the Rehabilitation Act standard. This would furthermore indicate that the “solely on the basis of disability” criteria was inappropriate for an ADA discrimination claim, a conclusion which a number of Circuit Courts have already reached. In this way, it appears that the Sixth Circuit contradicted itself, although its discussion of the “solely on the basis of disability” standard in Lewis seems to suggest that it will continue using that standard in ADA cases going forward.