7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Employer in Americans with Disabilities Act Lawsuit

On March 25, 2020, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer-defendant in a disability discrimination lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  Castetter v. Dolgencorp, LLC, No. 19-2026 (March 25, 2020).  The plaintiff alleged that the defendant terminated his employment because of his disability, cancer, in violation of the ADA.  The defendant contended that it terminated the Plaintiff's employment for policy violations.  The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against a qualified individual based on his or her disability.  In order to state an ADA claim for disability discrimination, a plaintiff must plead and prove that: (1) she has a disability within the meaning of the ADA; (2) she was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) disability was the "but for" cause of the adverse employment action.

A plaintiff may use the burden-shifting proof framework, or use the generalized approach of whether the evidence, in its totality, would support a finding of disability discrimination.  Cancer is considered a disability under the ADA.  The question was whether the defendant terminated the plaintiff on account of his disability.  The plaintiff argued that certain comments and actions raised an inference of a discriminatory animus on the part of the decision-makers.  However, isolated comments must be contemporaneous with the termination or causally related to the termination process in order to be relevant.  The plaintiff provided no evidence that the comments or conduct from his supervisors were contemporaneous with or part of the decision to terminate him.  Thus, the plaintiff failed to establish any causal connection between the comments and termination decision.  The plaintiff also tried to advance a theory of disparate treatment--that the defendant did not terminate his subordinate for the same reason.  However, the termination resulting from failure to adhere to the plaintiff's managerial responsibilities cannot be compared with discipline of a subordinate upon whom plaintiff imposed responsibilities beyond the scope of her employment.  The plaintiff was also unsuccessful in his attempt to argue pretext.  When it comes to pretext, the only issue is the honesty of an employer's beliefs in connection with its reasons for a termination.  To establish pretext, the plaintiff was required to provide evidence that: (1) he was terminated for reasons other than those provided; (2) the reasons had no grounding in fact; or (3) the reasons were insufficient to warrant termination.  The defendant honestly believed that plaintiff was committing policy violations when it fired him.  Therefore, the defendant's reasons were not pretextual.