Southern District Court of Florida
No. 04-23205-CIV, 2007 WL 2700579
September 12, 2007
Keywords: employment, legal concepts, state & local government, ADA-general, enforcement, discrimination, ADA, public accommodations, medical and health care, retaliation
Facts of the Case
Mr. Aguirre was a police officer employed by the City of Miami (“City”) in the off-duty office of the police department for approximately 18 years. The off-duty office assigns officers to work for private businesses throughout the City that request security for their private events.
In March 2003, Mr. Aguirre was a witness in a trial against the City. He testified as to the City’s policy towards officers with disabilities and alleged discriminatory conduct of supervisors in his department. Mr. Aguirre’s direct supervisor, Lieutenant Landa, was present for his testimony. The same day, Lt. Landa attended a meeting with his superiors to discuss Mr. Aguirre’s trial testimony and internal complaints about selection of officers assigned to off-duty jobs. Lt. Landa was directed to change the office policy regarding off-duty job assignments.
That evening, Mr. Aguirre received a memo from Lt. Landa indicating Mr. Aguirre would no longer work off-duty jobs without Lt. Landa’s consent. Prior to the memo, Mr. Aguirre was able to choose the off-duty jobs he wanted. Mr. Aguirre also lost his supervisory duties, was no longer permitted to attend office meetings, and was confined to clerical work.
A few months later, Lt. Landa was transferred from the off-duty office, and the policy change was revoked. Mr. Aguirre once again was able to choose his assignments and attend meetings, and no longer was confined to clerical work. Over a year later Mr. Aguirre retired, and shortly thereafter filed suit against the City for adverse employment action and constructive discharge. A constructive discharge occurs when an employee is legally justified in claiming he or she was compelled to resign because the employer made working conditions intolerable. In this case, Mr. Aguirre argued the policy change was retaliation against him because he testified about the City’s alleged discriminatory conduct, and that by perpetuating or allowing the retaliation measures to persist, the City caused his resignation.
Issue of the Case
- Whether the City retaliated against and constructively discharged Mr. Aguirre in violation of the ADA and the Florida Civil Rights Act.
Arguments & Analysis
1. Mr. Aguirre argued that the change in policy was sufficiently related to the protected activity of testifying as to constitute retaliation against him.
The City denied that Lt. Landa took any retaliatory measures against Mr. Aguirre, that any action affecting Mr. Aguirre’s employment was connected to Lt. Landa’s actions, and that the City constructively or otherwise discharged Mr. Aguirre.
2. The Court first noted that the ADA contains anti-retaliation provisions.
These provisions specifically prohibit retaliation against any individual because that individual has testified in a proceeding regarding alleged discrimination under the ADA. Accordingly, to establish a case for retaliation under the ADA, Mr. Aguirre needed to demonstrate that “there is a causal link between the protected activity in which he participated and his employer’s adverse employment action.” Demonstrating the causal link required only that Mr. Aguirre show the City’s change in policy was not wholly unrelated to his testimony in the discrimination case, which he could do by proving the City knew about his testimony at the time they changed the policy.
3. In light of the City’s claim that the official who ordered the policy change was unaware of Mr. Aguirre’s testimony, the Court noted that the absence of a decision maker’s knowledge alone is not unrebuttable evidence when circumstantial evidence exists “that may lead a reasonable person to infer that the decision maker’s testimony is inaccurate.”
The Court relied on circumstantial evidence and inconsistencies in testimony to support a finding that there was conflicting evidence as to who ordered the policy change. Accordingly, the Court held that whether there was a causal connection between Mr. Aguirre’s trial testimony and the City’s decision to change the off-duty policy was a question for the jury.
4. Turning to the next issue, the Court noted that for the City’s actions to constitute constructive discharge, Mr. Aguirre’s working conditions must have deteriorated significantly such that a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign.
Examples of significant deterioration include a demeaning demotion or transfer. The Court held that while reasonable men could differ as to whether the changes in Mr. Aguirre’s environment immediately following his testimony constituted a demeaning demotion, his conditions drastically improved and he was practically restored to his former position when Lt. Landa transferred.
The Court applied the rule from Steele v. Offshore Shipbuilding, Inc. (11th Cir. 1989) which provides: “[i]f an employer ceases to create an intolerable work environment, and the employee resigns irregardless of the improved conditions, this indicates that an employee has not been constructively discharged.”
The Court held that Mr. Aguirre was not constructively discharged where he quit more than one year after any adverse employment action by the City, and while his employment conditions clearly improved.
Policy & Practice
The anti-retaliation provisions of the ADA protect any individual who opposes disability-based discrimination, or who makes a charge, testifies, assists, or participates in an investigation, proceeding or hearing under the ADA. To benefit from this anti-retaliation provision, the individual need not meet the definition of disability.
Eleventh Circuit precedent has denied claims of constructive discharge where the employee quit as few as eleven days after the alleged harassment stopped, and has held that an employee who remains in their position after the retaliatory conduct has ended, is barred from prevailing on a constructive discharge claim.
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.