Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals No. 06-1818, 2008 WL 186154 January 23, 2008 Keywords:
employment, front pay, legal concepts, pretext, reasonable accommodation, regarded as, termination
Facts of the Case
Plaintiff Jimmy Wilson worked as a shipping supervisor at Phoenix Specialty Manufacturing Company, Inc. (“Phoenix”). After experiencing a major panic attack during a work meeting, on May 16, 2001, Wilson immediately went to see Dr. Dwight, both the company physician and Wilson’s personal physician. Dr. Dwight referred him to neurologist Dr. Bergmann who examined Wilson on May 24, 2001 for symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, anxiety and loss of motor control in his right hand with which he previously had been diagnosed. After adjusting Wilson’s medications, Dr. Bergmann approved him to return to work. Phoenix, however, would not allow Wilson to return until he obtained a release from Dr. Dwight. Dr. Dwight provided Wilson with a work release without examining him on or about June 4, 2001, that allowed him to work half days for two weeks. Then, without consulting Dr. Dwight, Phoenix allowed Wilson to work full time after the two weeks lapsed.
After every doctor visit, Phoenix president Robert Hurst required Wilson to report the progression of his Parkinson’s disease. Although Hurst emailed the company’s human resources assistant, stating that Wilson “qualifies for ADA designation and we will have to consider accommodations”; Phoenix denied his accommodation request for a 21-inch computer screen instead of the standard 17-inch screen. Wilson was provided with assistance in writing employee evaluations, but was not provided with assistance in all other writing tasks. When the company installed a new, “complex” computer system, senior management believed, without providing Wilson training on the new system, that he was unable to accurately input data into the computer due to his disability. Fearing that he would make errors, senior management barred Wilson from keying information into the computer.
In an effort to downsize, Phoenix eliminated Wilson’s position and the press room manager position. Although they allowed the press room manager to remain as an hourly employee, Phoenix stated that a position was not available for Wilson. Subsequently, Wilson filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC.
After finding that Phoenix regarded Wilson as having a disability, and nonetheless failed to accommodate and fired him, the district court granted Wilson $177,783 in back-pay (from August 2002- August 2005, the period Wilson was not employed due to Parkinson’s disease). The court awarded him $10,000 in compensatory damages due to the depression and humiliation he suffered as a result of Phoenix’s behavior. Additionally, he was awarded $10,000 in punitive damages because Phoenix fired him “with reckless indifference” to his rights under the ADA.
Issues of the Case
- Phoenix appealed and argued that the district court erred in finding: Phoenix fired Wilson on the basis of regarding him as disabled by Parkinson’s disease.
- Phoenix appealed and argued that the district court erred in finding: Phoenix’s stated reasons for terminating Wilson were pretextual.
- Phoenix appealed and argued that the district court erred in finding: Wilson was entitled to reasonable accommodations.
- Wilson cross-appealed (i.e., also appealed the district court decision) arguing the court erred in not granting him “front pay” (i.e., money awarded for continuing to be unemployed after the district court made its final ruling).
Arguments & Analysis
1. Regarded As Claim
The Appellate Court affirmed the district court’s finding that Phoenix believed Wilson (a) was unable to key information into the computer and (b) could not “adequately utiliz[e] the information on the computer screen.” The Court held that Phoenix perceived Wilson to have a disability because the company ignored neurologist Dr. Bergmann’s medical opinion that Wilson was capable of returning to work without restrictions, and would not allow Wilson to return to work without Dr. Dwight’s consent.
2. Pretext for Termination
When determining whether Wilson’s discharge was discriminatory, the Appellate Court evaluated the district court’s holding that Phoenix’s six excuses for firing Wilson were pretextual:
(a) Workforce reduction.
With respect to Phoenix’s claim that it engaged in a workforce reduction, the district court held it could not be considered a reduction since only two employees were involved.
(b) Financial difficulties.
Phoenix’s excuse that financial difficulties were the reason for the workforce reduction was rejected because the company had paid bonuses to most of its employees in 2002 (after the company fired Wilson in August 2002).
(c) Essential job functions.
Phoenix argued they chose to eliminate Wilson’s position because he delegated many of his managerial positions to other employees and refused to master the new computer system. The district court held that both were false claims as Wilson attempted to master the computer system, but was instructed by his supervisors not to input information.
(d) Hourly position.
The district court disagreed with Phoenix’s excuses that Wilson could not have received an hourly position because there were no openings, and that he was not a good co-worker because he ruled with a “heavy hand.” The court held that the company needed a shipping clerk because it posted an opening. In fact, Wilson applied for the position but did not receive a response. Additionally, one of Wilson’s former subordinates testified that he was a “fair supervisor.”
(e) Shipping supervisor position.
The district court rejected Phoenix’s claim that the new shipping foreman position did not replace Wilson’s former position as shipping supervisor. The court held that Phoenix had not eliminated Wilson’s position, but rather changed the name of the position and promoted a new employee with limited experience to fill it.
(f) False allegations.
The court rejected Phoenix’s claim that on Wilson’s final day of work (after notification of his termination), an independent basis for discharge arose. Phoenix claimed that Wilson ordered ten years worth of packing supplies. The court held that he was set up; Wilson ordered enough supplies to get the company through the transition period after his departure, but someone wrote over his notes to make it look like he ordered excess supplies.
3. Reasonable Accommodations
In response to Phoenix’s final challenge, the Appellate Court did not affirm or reverse the district court’s holding that Wilson was entitled to accommodations under the ADA. The Appellate Court stated that there was a circuit split (i.e., a disagreement among different Courts of Appeals) as to whether there is a duty to accommodate an individual who is “regarded as” having a disability. The Appellate Court did not decide this issue because the damages awarded to Wilson were tied to his discriminatory discharge and not to Phoenix’s failure to accommodate.
4. Front Pay
The decision to award front pay is up to the discretion of the trial judge. The Appellate Court affirmed that Wilson was not entitled to front pay because Dr. Bergmann testified that Wilson was “competitively employable” by the end of 2005 (six months before the district court entered its judgment).
The Appellate Court affirmed the district court’s holding that (1) Phoenix fired Wilson in violation of the ADA because the company regarded him as disabled by Parkinson’s disease and that (2) Phoenix’s stated reasons for terminating Wilson were pretextual. The Appellate Court did not make a ruling as to whether (3) Wilson, “regarded as” having a disability, was entitled to reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Lastly, (4) the Appellate Court affirmed the district court’s decision to deny Wilson an award of front pay.
Policy & Practice
Reasonable Accommodations and “Regarded as” Plaintiffs
As explained in this Fourth Circuit decision, there is a circuit split as to whether individuals regarded as having a disability are entitled to accommodations. The Fifth Circuit in Newberry v. East Texas State University
and the Sixth Circuit in Workman v. Frito-Lay
held that employees who are “regarded as” having a disability are not entitled to reasonable accommodations. In contrast, the Eleventh Circuit in D’Angelo v. ConAgra Foods
held that “regarded as” plaintiffs are entitled to an individualized inquiry into whether they need an accommodation under the ADA.
Front pay is money awarded for the loss of employment after the date of judgment until the date of reinstatement. This victim-specific judicial relief provides compensation for future lost wages and benefits. While job reinstatement is preferred, front pay can be awarded even when reinstatement is not feasible. In those instances, the court awards an amount sufficient to make the plaintiff whole.
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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.