Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
No. 529 F.3d 513
May 27, 2008
Keywords: legal concepts, motivating factor, retaliation
Facts of the Case
Mr. Pinkerton, an individual with arthrogryposis (which causes developmental abnormalities such as shortness of limbs, deformed joints, and limitations of motion), was employed by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). The DOE discharged him for unacceptable performance.
He filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging retaliation and discrimination, which resulted in a finding of no discrimination. He then brought suit alleging disability discrimination under Sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, claiming he was terminated and retaliated against because of his disability. The U.S. District Court instructed the jury that to recover, the plaintiff had to prove that his disability was the sole cause of discrimination. The jury found in favor of the DOE.
Issues of the Case
- What burden of proof must a plaintiff carry to show causation between disability discrimination and an adverse employment decision under Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act?
Arguments & Analysis
1. Mr. Pinkerton argued that Section 501 uses the same “mixed-motive” causation standard as the ADA.
Thus, the district court should have instructed the jury to determine not whether the plaintiff was terminated “solely because of his disability” but whether disability was a “motivating factor” in the termination decision. The DOE responded that Section 501 uses the same “sole reason” standard as Section 504.
The Fifth Circuit held that the “motivating factor” test was the appropriate standard under Section 501. It therefore reversed the decision and remanded the case back to the district court. The court reasoned that Section 501(g) explicitly incorporates the ADA standards for determining whether this section was violated. The Court agreed with the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in McNely v. Ocala Star-Banner Corp. (1996), which reviewed the ADA’s legislative history and Supreme Court precedent to conclude that the ADA’s language conveys the idea of a factor that makes a difference in the outcome and not one that is the sole cause of the outcome.
Policy & Practice
Burdens of Proof
Courts have inconsistently applied the ADA’s use of causal language such as, “because of,” “by reason of,” and “because” to mean “solely because of disability” or as a “motivating factor.”
Plaintiffs alleging discrimination under § 501 have a more lenient causation standard to meet (the motivating factor test) than under § 504 (the sole reason standard). This makes § 501 more analogous to the way the ADA has been interpreted.
- Fifth Circuit Court – Pinkerton v. Spellings [PDF]
529 F.3d 513 (5th Cir. 1998) Opinion available as PDF download
- Eleventh Circuit Court – McNely v. Ocala Star-Banner Corp.
99 F.3d 1068 (11th Cir. 1996)
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