7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on ADA Disability Discrimination, Failure to Accommodate, and Retaliation Claims

On January 25, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer-defendant in a lawsuit filed in federal court under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  Scheidler v. State of Indiana, No. 17-2543 (7th Cir. Jan. 25, 2019).  The plaintiff alleged that the defendant failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation for her disability and terminated her employment because of her disability, in violation of the ADA.  She also alleged that her employment was terminated in retaliation for opposing disability discrimination and sex discrimination, in violation of the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII").  The ADA prohibits certain types of disability discrimination.  The ADA provides that "[N]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment."

Disability discrimination includes disparate treatment and failure to accommodate--not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, who is an applicant or employee.  A claim for disparate treatment based on disability under the ADA required proof that: (1) the plaintiff was disabled; (2) the plaintiff was qualified and able to perform her essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation; (3) a similarly situated employee without a disability was treated more favorably than she by the employer; and (4) the disability was the "but for" cause of the adverse employment action.  A failure to accommodate claim under the ADA requires proof that: (1) the plaintiff was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the defendant was aware of her disability; and (3) the defendant failed to accommodate her disability.  These are two separate and independent claims under the ADA.  

Reasonable accommodation under the ADA is a process, not a "one-off event."  In this case, the plaintiff provided no evidence that the ADA interactive process broke down.  Moreover, she had previously received the accommodations that she had requested, and after she reported a single instance during which her accommodation was breached, no further problems occurred.  The particular single incident did not support a failure to accommodate claim under the ADA.

The plaintiff's ADA employment termination claim also failed.  The evidence indicated that she was terminated for certain unacceptable workplace conduct; and there was no evidence of disparate treatment.  An employee can be terminated for violations of workplace rules, even if the violations occurred because of a disability.  If an employer terminates an employee on account of unacceptable workplace behavior, the fact that the behavior was precipitated by a mental illness does not raise an issue under the ADA.

The plaintiff's retaliation claims failed because she did not engage in protected activity.  Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee for opposing an employment practice that is prohibited under Title VII, or for making a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII.  A retaliation claim requires statutorily protected activity.  The employee must have a sincere, good faith, subjective belief that she opposed an unlawful employment practice, and her belief must also be objectively reasonable, which means that her complaint must involve discrimination that is prohibited by Title VII.  The plaintiff's single comment in this case was not a complaint of sex discrimination and, therefore, did not constitute protected activity.  Consequently, her Title VII retaliation claim was not sustainable.  She similarly failed to establish statutorily protected activity to support her ADA retaliation claim (that she opposed an employment practice prohibited by the ADA) and thus her ADA retaliation claim also failed.