7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Employer in ADA Lawsuit

On February 20, 2020, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant employer in a disability discrimination lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  Stelter v. Wisconsin Physicians Service Insurance Corporation, No. 18-3689 (7th Cir. Feb. 20, 2020).  The plaintiff alleged that she was disabled under the ADA with back pain aggravated by a work injury.  She claimed that the defendant failed to accommodate her disability and terminated her employment because of her disability in violation of the ADA.  The record contained evidence, however, that the defendant terminated her on account of legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.

Under the ADA, an employer is prohibited from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.  To prevail on an ADA claim, a plaintiff must plead and prove that: (1) she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) the employer took an adverse job action against her because of her disability.  The district court found that the plaintiff did not establish that she was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job.  The ADA does not protect an individual who cannot perform her job due to reasons unrelated to her disability.  Moreover, the defendant contended that the plaintiff's supervisor had recommended her for termination based on legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons.  The plaintiff argued that the defendant's proffered reasons were pretext for disability discrimination.  Under pretext analysis, the focus is on whether the employer honestly believed the reasons it has given for the termination decision.  To establish pretext, the plaintiff had to demonstrate, through inconsistencies or contradictions, that the defendant's stated reasons were not the real reasons for the termination decision, but fabrications to cover up invidious reasons.  The defendant's proffered reasons were mentioned in the plaintiff's job performance reviews, which preceded her work injury.  Therefore, no reasonable jury could conclude that she was terminated on the basis of disability.  Additionally, the plaintiff failed to meet her burden to establish that her disability was the "but for" cause of her termination.

The plaintiff also alleged that the defendant failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation for her back injury, in violation of the ADA.  When an employee notifies an employer of a disability and requests a workplace accommodation for the disability, the ADA requires the employer and employee to engage in an interactive process to determine an appropriate workplace accommodation, as necessary.  A plaintiff typically must request an accommodation for her disability in order to claim that she was improperly denied an accommodation.  However, the district court found that she failed to do so, and the 7th Circuit agreed.