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Pinkerton v. Spellings, Secretary – U.S. Dept. of Education

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

  1. 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.



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