Middle District Court of Florida
No. 2:06-cv-522-FtM-34SPC, 2008 WL 215699
January 24, 2008
Keywords: ADA – general, ADA Title I, compensatory damages, employment, legal concepts, state & local government, trial by jury
This brief addresses an issue with a circuit split.
Facts of the Case
Plaintiff, Victoria Rumler, was employed as a Corrections Officer at the Department of Corrections (“DOC”) for the State of Florida. Rumler had an outstanding performance record, as she consistently received positive evaluations and qualified for bonuses. She alleges that in 2001, she was attacked by an inmate, which resulted in physical and psychological injuries. Subsequently, Rumler was “medically precluded” from working as a Corrections Officer and from having direct inmate contact.
Rumler applied for Workers Compensation and switched her DOC position to “stores consultant.” This position included work outside of the prison itself and didn’t require direct inmate contact. Nonetheless, the DOC required that she also take up the mail carrier position, which involved the delivery of mail to inmates in their prison cells. Rumler alleges that this requirement was in retaliation for requesting Worker’s Compensation benefits. Moreover, Rumler asserts that she repeatedly requested to be returned to her normal stores consultant duties and made an accommodations request under the ADA. These requests were “ignored or rejected.”
In 2005, Rumler became pregnant and experienced medical complications as a result of the pregnancy. She requested excusal from her mail carrier duties but was refused by the DOC. Rumler then filed a complaint with the EEOC in September of that year. In November, Rumler received family leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Rumler asserts that her sick leave was mishandled, because the DOC refused to appropriately credit her leaves, shortened her leave, and caused her medical insurance to lapse.
After being notified by the EEOC of the complaint in 2006, the DOC brought disciplinary charges against Rumler. Those included “conduct inconsistent with the maintenance of proper security and welfare of the institution; excessive absenteeism; absence without authorized leave; negligence; conduct unbecoming a public employee and failure to follow oral or written instructions.” Rumler then informed the DOC that she would be filing additional EEOC charges for retaliation. The DOC subsequently terminated Rumler.
In June of 2006, the EEOC determined that pregnancy was not a disability under the ADA, and dismissed her complaint. Finally, the EEOC issued Rumler a right to sue letter. Rumler brought this suit against the DOC, alleging: 1) retaliatory firing in violation of the ADA; 2) deprivation of a property interest in employment without due process of law; and 3) retaliation in violation of the Florida Worker’s Compensation Act.
Issues of the Case
- Whether compensatory and punitive damages are available for retaliation claims under the ADA.
- Whether the plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial for retaliation claims under the ADA.
Background on Damages for Retaliation
The ADA prohibits retaliatory behavior against an individual who has opposed an unlawful, discriminatory act or practice by an employer. Unlike Titles I, II, and III of the ADA, Title V, the anti-retaliation provision, does not specifically outline corresponding available remedies. Rather, it explains that the remedies available under Title V are those available under the provisions of Title I, II, and III, depending on the context of the complaint. Plaintiff’s complaint falls under Title I. Therefore, the anti-retaliation provision incorporates the remedies set forth in Title I of the ADA, which adopts the “powers, remedies, and procedures” of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
At the time of ADA passage, the Civil Rights Act did not permit a court to award compensatory or punitive damages or to allow trial by jury. However, the 1991 amendments to the Act expanded the available remedies to allow plaintiffs to recover compensatory and punitive damages and to request a jury trial on such claims.
Claims of retaliation under the ADA are not specifically mentioned in the 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act. Thus, courts have subsequently disagreed whether to allow compensatory and punitive damages for retaliation under the ADA. The Seventh and Fourth Circuits have held that compensatory and punitive damages are not available in this circumstance. Those courts reasoned that because the 1991 amendments did not mention retaliatory claims, remedial protections were not extended to Title V of the ADA. Because the plain language only authorized equitable relief, the Seventh and Fourth Circuits refused to extend it any further.
On the other hand, the Second, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits have awarded compensatory damages for ADA retaliation, although these courts did not independently analyze whether compensatory damages were authorized under the Act. The Eleventh Circuit, within which the present court is located, has not yet rendered a decision on the issue.
Arguments & Analysis
1. In the instant case, the DOC argued that Rumler’s claim for a jury trial and for compensatory / punitive damages should be dismissed, because the ADA only authorizes equitable relief for retaliation claims.
That is, the damage awards under Title V involve an injunction commanding or preventing an action. Equitable relief would not include monetary damages or a jury trial to determine the specific monetary amount. The DOC based this contention on the plain language of the ADA and on the aforementioned Seventh Circuit decision. Rumler argued that Title V allows for compensatory and punitive damages because the same remedies available under the Civil Rights Act should extend to Title I, as articulated in the ADA’s enforcement provision.
The court held that the 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act expanded the scope of the remedies set forth in the ADA, which therefore entitled the plaintiff to compensatory and punitive damages, as well as a trial by jury.
Policy & Practice
Here, the federal courts within the Eleventh Circuit are grappling with the issue of damage awards for plaintiffs injured under Title V of the ADA. The plain language of the ADA only allows for equitable relief. This type of remedy is non-monetary in nature and typically involves an injunction commanding or preventing an action.
Compensatory and punitive damages differ in so far as they are awarded to monetarily compensate a plaintiff or monetarily punish a defendant. The court will award compensatory damages to a plaintiff in the amount necessary to make them whole; that is, the amount that places the plaintiff back in the position prior to the unlawful act. Punitive damages are used to punish the wrongdoing of a defendant. This type of damage award is given in addition to actual damages when the defendant acted with recklessness, malice, or deceit.
One of the goals of the judiciary is equal application of the law. As previously mentioned, there is disagreement among the Circuit Courts of Appeals over the issue of damages under the ADA. This issue may be resolved by higher courts or by the legislature.
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.