United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
July 27, 2022
Keywords: age discrimination, retaliation, federal employee, disability discrimination, Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), burden-shifting.
Summary and Facts of the Case
Robert Bledsoe took his former employer, the Tennessee Valley Authority (“TVA”) to court. Mr. Bledsoe claimed TVA violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Mr. Bledsoe claimed that TVA violated the ADEA and Rehabilitation Act and discriminated against him due to age and disability. His supervisor falsely tried to convince the other members of the committee to demote Bledsoe from his teaching position at a training program where his son was accepted.
Mr. Bledsoe went to work at TVA in 1985. TVA operates two nuclear power plants, the Sequoyah and the Watts Bar Nuclear Plants. For most of his TVA career, Mr. Bledsoe was an Assistant Unit Operator (“AUO”) at the Sequoyah Plant. The two TVA plants run two training programs – one for AUO’s who are not licensed, like Mr. Bledsoe, and one for licensed operators. The courses for licensed operators can only be taught by licensed operators. Within the AUO training program, there are two courses: (1) the Nuclear Student Generation Plant Operating Training Course (“NSGPO”) and (2) Non-Licensed Operator Requalification Course. Both courses must be completed by AUO’s. Each plant has a local joint training subcommittee (“the Committee”) that oversees the two programs.
In May 2015, the Committee appointed Mr. Bledsoe as an NSGPO instructor. He was responsible for developing lessons, exams, and course materials. His daily activities and non-licensed training program were overseen by Jeremy Bailey (“Bailey”). Bailey’s supervisor, Christopher Dahlman, managed all training programs at the Sequoyah center starting in January 2017.
In October 2016, Mr. Bledsoe took medical leave due to liver cirrhosis. Cirrhosis of the liver is scarring of the liver caused by long-term liver damage. It may be considered an impairment to a major life activity. He received a liver transplant. In February 2017, he returned to work. At times, he used a cane and took medications he kept on his desk.
Shortly after Bledsoe returned to work, Dahlman began making comments about Bledsoe’s health and bullying him about his health and pressuring him to retire. After this happened many times, Mr. Bledsoe told Jeremy Bailey, Megan Markum, a human resources generalist, and David Williams, the union vice president, about the bullying. Mr. Bledsoe was then told that Dahlman was going to try and get him fired because he was upset Bledsoe talked to human resources.
In November 2017, Bledsoe’s son applied for a position in the NSGPO classes at both plants. When he ranked his local preferences, Mr. Bledsoe’s son said he preferred a position at the Sequoyah plant, but that he would accept employment at any of the locations. TVA offered Bledsoe’s son, Hudson, a position at the NSGPO training program at Sequoyah. Bledsoe was the instructor scheduled to teach Hudson’s class.
Bledsoe saw this as a conflict of interest. He asked Dahlman and Bailey if Hudson joining the program would be a problem. Bailey told him not to worry and Bledsoe could teach the NLOR program while his son was at NSGPO. However, before this conversation between Bledsoe and Bailey, Kevin Michael, an operations management representative, had concerns about family conflicts in the class. Michael asked Markum to seek an ethics opinion following Hudson’s interview.
In November 2017, Markum emailed Janda Brown, the TVA Director of Ethics and Compliance. Markum told Brown that Bledsoe’s son would be offered a job in the NSGPO class. Markum did not ask if there was the possibility of transferring Bledsoe to the NLOR program that he teach a class his son was not in, but Dahlman and Bailey told her a transfer was not an option. Later in November, the Committee met to discuss the TVA’s ethics opinion. At the meeting, Dahlman and Markum demanded Bledsoe be removed from the non-licensed training program. Williams, Dahlman’s union representative, suggested that Bledsoe be reassigned to the NLOR program, and Michael agreed.
However, in February 2017, the Committee unanimously voted to remove Bledsoe from his instructor position. Bledsoe was fifty-eight years old. When he was demoted, his salary was cut by almost $30,000. Bledsoe filed a complaint with TVA’s Equal Opportunity Commission. He then filed a complaint in district court, alleging violations of the ADEA and Rehabilitation Act. TVA asked for summary judgment and the district court granted it. Summary judgement is when a court rules for one party in a case and against another without a trial. Mr. Bledsoe appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Issues of the Case
- Does the stringent causation standard under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, that says no individual shall be subject to discrimination in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance solely by reason of disability, apply to all sections of the Rehabilitation Act, including Section 501?
- Was age discrimination a reason for Bledsoe’s firing under the ADEA and Rehabilitation Act?
- Was the District Court wrong to dismiss Mr. Bledsoe’s retaliation claim?
Arguments and Analysis
1. Bledsoe believed that Section 501 Rehabilitation Act claims do not need to satisfy the stringent causation standard found in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Bledsoe claimed that under Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, which applies to federal employees, that the causation standard in Section 504 does not apply to Section 501. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. says that an employer receiving federal funding cannot discriminate “solely by reason of [an employee’s] disability,” but the word “solely” does not appear in Section 501. Since the word “solely” does not appear in Section 501, Bledsoe said that a someone bringing a Section 501 claim does not have to exactly meet the “solely by reason of” standard. TVA believed the strict Section 504 standard was correct.
To answer this legal question, the Court looked at the structure and history of the Rehabilitation Act. An opinion from the First Circuit Court of Appeals, says that when the Rehabilitation Act was new law, Section 501 “required that federal agencies adopt affirmative-action plans to hire and advance opportunities for individuals with disabilities,” and Section 504 said any private entities that get federal funds cannot discriminate “solely by reason” of disability. All courts agree that the right of action applies to Section 504, but not to Section 501.
Congress added a way for federal employees to bring suit under the Rehabilitation Act by adding Section 505, which lists ways to get justice under Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts for any federal employees bringing claims under Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act. Also, the House of Representatives amended Section 504 to read that “not only entities receiving federal assistance but also “any program or activity conducted by an Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service” from discriminating “solely by reason of” disability. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals read this to mean that the changes Congress made to Section 504 meant that Congress chose to keep the partial overlap between Section 501 and Section 50. The Court noted that, while some courts only recognize one cause of action under Section 501, other courts note the two sections and ruled that federal employees that claim disability discrimination can have private claims against their employers under both Section 504 and Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The Court admitted the issue of applicability of the strict Section 504 standard to Section 501 was an issue of interpretation in this circuit. TVA noted that in Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals made a distinction between Americans with Disabilities Act claims and Rehabilitation Act claims and said that the “sole-cause” standard only applies to Rehabilitation Act claims. However, in that case, Lewis was only bringing Section 504 claims, so the court did not compare Section 504 and Section 501 claims. In fact, the Court noted that the only court that did look at the standards under Section 501 and Section 504 were favorable for Bledsoe. Pinkerton, 529 F.3d at 516. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the Fifth Circuit’s understanding, and the Fifth Circuit said that Section 504’s sole-cause standard does not apply to claims brought under Section 501, and rather, the ADA’s less strict standards apply to Section 501.
2. Bledsoe argued that Dahlman’s statements were direct evidence of age and disability discrimination.
Bledsoe argued that Dahlman’s statements about his ability due to his age and disability were evidence of unlawful discrimination if Dahlman’s statement influenced the Committee. The Court noted that Dahlman’s statements, along with being Bledsoe’s supervisor, was not enough to prove discrimination. Many people of different roles were on the Committee and participated in coming to the ultimate decision, which was unanimous. While it was possible that Dahlman influenced the Committee entirely, such a question was one for the jury, not the Court. Thus, Bledsoe did not prevail on his claim of direct evidence. That said, he offered indirect evidence of discrimination too.
When a plaintiff in a court case provides indirect evidence of discrimination, the law uses the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. This means, if a plaintiff gives enough evidence of a prima facie case, meaning on first sight, an employer has to offer a nondiscriminatory reason for taking a negative employment action. The plaintiff must show that the reason the employer provided is a reason for discrimination. TVA did not argue that Bledsoe established a prima facie case for discrimination. Instead, they argued that they had ethical concerns about Mr. Bledsoe’s ability and demoted him. In this situation, Mr. Bledsoe had to prove that the ethical concerns (1) lacked a basis in fact; (2) did not motivate the harmful action; or (3) were not sufficient to warrant the demotion.
Mr. Bledsoe claimed that he gave evidence (1) that the ethical concerns did not motivate the adverse action, and (2) that they were not enough to warrant the demotion. The Court looked at each of these. In the first argument, the Court looked at the comments that Dahlman had made about Bledsoe’s age and disability. They decided that a reasonable jury could assume Dahlman’s bias was behind his desire for Bledsoe to stop teaching. The Court had to decide if Dahlman was able to influence the demotion. To decide this, the Court relied on the cat’s paw theory. Under the cat’s paw theory, a plaintiff can claim the employer is liable for the hostility of a supervisor who did not have the authority to make a final employment decision. Under this theory, Mr. Bledsoe had to prove Dahlman was the main reason the Committee demoted him.
The Court ruled that Mr. Bledsoe showed enough evidence that Dahlman influenced the Committee’s decision. Markum relied heavily on the opinions of Dahlman and Bailey that only demotion could solve the ethics concerns. Markum did not ask questions on her own as to whether demotion was the only possible option. The court believed that a reasonable jury would believe that Michael and Williams left the decision to Dahlman to demote Bledsoe because Michael admitted that Dahlman and Bailey knew more about the training than he did. TVA argued that Michael was worried about the ethics issue from the start. The Court noted that there were also real reasons to doubt Michael’s testimony that he cared about the ethics issue from the start. Michael’s testimony was flawed to whether Michael was worried about the ethics issue. These flaws, along with his knowledge that Dahlman had problems with Bledsoe, raised questions about whether Dahlman influenced Michael’s ethics issue concerns and, finally, his decision as part of the Committee’s ultimate decision.
TVA argued that Dahlman could not have affected the demotion because he did not create the ethics complaint or begin the ethics inquiry on his own. The Court believed that TVA’s argument unfairly described Bledsoe’s claim because he claimed there were many choices other than demotion and Dahlman influenced the Committee to not consider those other choices. In response, TVA argued that even if there were other choices, these alternatives were not realistic. However, Bledsoe pointed to facts to counter TVA’s allegations that alternatives were not realistic. Questions of fact are for juries to decide, not the court. The Court ruled that there was direct evidence of age and disability discrimination.
In a final attempt to win the case, TVA argued that the honest-belief rule should have governed. Under the honest-belief rule, if an employer truthfully believes in a mistaken or baseless reason for the harmful employment action, the employer did not intend to discriminate, so the negative employment action was not deliberate. TVA said that this rule prevented Mr. Bledsoe from establishing the negative employment action was deliberate because the Committee considered and rejected other possible options to demotion in good faith. The Court, said that the honest-belief rule only applies only when a plaintiff is relying on an employer’s irrational basis for discriminatory actions to illustrate pretext, and that the honest-belief rule does not beat the cat’s paw theory, except for when an independent investigation determines that the adverse action was completely justified.
TVA believed there was an independent investigation in this case since the ethics director, not a member of the Committee, felt that hiring Bledsoe’s son was a problem. However, there was no evidence to suggest that the ethics director considered anything other than demotion, so the honest-belief rule could not be used. Both sides gave comparator evidence, that is evidence that Mr. Bledsoe was treated differently than other employees outside of Mr. Bledsoe’s class, in attempts to win. However, the Court ruled that a reasonable jury could believe that Dahlman’s age and disability biases motivated the Committee’s decision to demote Mr. Bledsoe as opposed to other options, so summary judgment was not warranted.
3. Bledsoe argued that the District Court erroneously dismissed his retaliation claim.
To show retaliation, Mr. Bledsoe must show: (1) he was engaged in a protected activity; (2) the TVA knew he was engaged in that protected activity; (3) TVA took a negative employment action against Mr. Bledsoe; and (4) there is an actual connection between the protected activity and the negative employment action. TVA only contested the causation element of the prima facie case.
TVA argued that time passed, preventing Mr. Bledsoe from bringing a retaliation claim, because to do so, he must prove that the negative employment action happened right after the protected activity. The Court held that Mr. Bledsoe gave evidence the events happened close to each other, as well as other evidence of retaliation, despite TVA’s allegations of otherwise, so Bledsoe sufficiently proved his retaliation claim, and the District Court was wrong in dismissing it.
The United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that there were genuine disputes of material facts that should be left to a jury, so granting of summary judgment was unnecessary.
The Court reversed and remanded the decision to the lower court so that the jury, the appropriate trier of facts, could evaluate the facts.
Not all the judges on the Sixth Circuit Court agreed. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Nalbandian argued that, for the cat’s paw theory to work, the impartial decision makers must adopt the recommendations of the partial colleague without thinking and Mr. Bledsoe did not prove that every Committee member carelessly voted to demote Bledsoe. Judge Nalbandian specifically looked at Williams and Michael in the dissent, arguing, among other things, that: (1) as Mr. Bledsoe’s union representative, Williams would not have simply accepted Dahlman’s recommendations; and (2) Michael brought up the conflict concerns in the first place, before he could have been influenced by Dahlman. Additionally, he argued that the Committee considered moving Bledsoe’s son to another facility, so they had considered an alternative, so Bledsoe could not prove that the entire Committee was influenced to demoting Bledsoe.
Policy and Practice
Section 501’s standard of causation should be interpreted liberally to protect plaintiffs discriminated against based on age and disability.
- Full Case: Bledsoe v. TVA Bd. of Dirs., 42 F.4th 568 (6th Cir. 2022)