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Yanick v. Kroger Co. of Michigan

No. 23-1439, 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 10563
Sixth Circuit Court
April 29, 2024

Keywords: reasonable accommodation, resignation, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), working conditions, district court, intolerable, demotion, disability, adverse action, retaliation, cancer

Summary

Ms. Yanick managed a bakery at a Michigan Kroger grocery. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and stepped down from her position six months later. The District Court ruled in favor of Kroger.

The United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the District Court was right to rule against Ms. Yanick regarding her disability discrimination and retaliation claims but agreed with her that Kroger failed to accommodate her. The case was partially affirmed and partially reversed.

Facts of the Case

Mary Ellen Yanick worked at a Kroger grocery store in Pinckney, Michigan for over fifteen years. In 2018, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and told one of her supervisors. Meanwhile, the store manager felt the bakery was not meeting Kroger’s standards and Ms. Yanick was not doing her job. She gave her a list of daily duties and told her that she would face discipline and could be fired if she could not follow the list. She then offered an alternative that Ms. Yanick step down from her manager position.

After a four-month medical leave and having surgery, Ms. Yanick returned to work and told the manager that she was struggling and “needed some time to get back to normal.” Yanick further said she worked 53 hours on her first week back, which was hard for her physically. The manager said again that if things continued, she could be disciplined or fired and she said again that Ms. Yanick should step down. Yanick eventually stepped down and started working as a bakery clerk at a different Kroger at less pay and with less authority.

Issues of the Case

  1. Did Kroger fail to accommodate Ms. Yanick’s disability under Title I of the ADA U.S.C. § 12112?
  2. Could Ms. Yanick show she suffered an adverse employment action?

Arguments and Analysis

1. Did Kroger fail to accommodate Ms. Yanick’s disability under Title I of the ADA U.S.C. § 12112?

The lower court said that Ms. Yanick did not ask for a reasonable accommodation because she did not tie her request to a medical reason, and she did not explain how her request was necessary to remedy a key problem.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, by saying Ms. Yanick raised a valid issue in her failure to accommodate claim. Under Title I of the ADA, discrimination includes failing to provide reasonable accommodations for an otherwise qualified individual’s known disability. The court has previously said that for a failure to accommodate claim Ms. Yanick, in this case, must show she asked for an accommodation and that her request was reasonable.

In deciding if an employee requested an accommodation, the court had to decide whether Ms. Yanick told Kroger about her need for an adjustment in work hours because of a disability. Further, employers must draw reasonable assumptions from what an employee says. Ms. Yanick had recently returned from four months of medical leave and told the manager that she was having trouble on the job it was hard for her physically and she needed some time to get back to normal. The court said that the employer should have understood these comments were a request for a reduced work schedule and assumed that Yanick’s physical struggles were due to her disability.

The court has said before that an accommodation is reasonable only if it addresses a key obstacle preventing the employee from performing a necessary function of the job. Changes in work schedules are a classic example of a reasonable accommodation. Ms. Yanick’s problem was fatigue. The court believed that a reduced work schedule would give her more time to recover and get used to her job’s physical demands.

2. Could Ms. Yanick show she suffered an adverse employment action?

The District Court said that Ms. Yanick did not show she had a harmful employment action because her working conditions were not so difficult and so she could not show constructive demotion.

The Court of Appeals previously said that constructive demotions can be a hostile employment action. However, to show constructive demotion, an employee must show they faced working conditions unbearable to a reasonable person. The intolerability standard requires working conditions so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in the employee’s shoes would have felt they had to resign.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court and believed that none of the actions that led to Ms. Yanick stepping down were hostile and were not enough to show constructive demotion. Ms. Yanick claims the actions that led to her stepping down were the employer’s criticism of her job performance, failure to accommodate, and pressure to step down. The court has previously said that a supervisor’s criticism of an employee’s job performance is not enough to show constructive demotion and that an employee cannot claim constructive discharge every time an employer fails to accommodate a disability.

While the Court of Appeals believed that the offer to continue Ms. Yanick’s employment on less favorable terms were in Ms. Yanick’s favor, it said that this factor, along with the performance criticism and accommodation request, was not enough to make a reasonable person to resign.

Rulings

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the District Court properly granted summary judgment against Ms. Yanick on the disability discrimination and retaliation claims, since there was not enough proof to show she suffered an adverse employment action.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the District Court was wrong in granting summary judgment to Kroger on the failure to accommodate claim, because Ms. Yanick proposed a reasonable accommodation of reduced hours that addressed her key obstacle of fatigue.

The Court of Appeals returned the case to the lower court for further proceedings on Ms. Yanick’s failure to accommodate claim.

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