7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in Failure-to-Accommodate ADA Lawsuit

On July 23, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant-employer in a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), in which the plaintiff, a former employee of the defendant, claimed that the defendant failed to reasonably accommodate his disability, and terminated his employment because of his disability.  Graham v. Arctic Zone Iceplex, No. 18-3508 (7th Cir. July 23, 2019).  The plaintiff sued his former employer for disability discrimination in violation of the ADA.  The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations that will allow a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of her job.  When an employee requests a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, the employer, as well as the employee, are required to engage in an interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation.

Identifying reasonable accommodations for a disabled employee requires both the employer and the employee to engage in a flexible, interactive process.  If an employee fails to provide the employer with sufficient information to determine the necessary accommodations, the employer cannot be held liable for failing to accommodate the disabled employee.  The plaintiff in this case acknowledged that he failed to inform the employer of his belief that his re-assignment to a different task did not comport with his medical restrictions.  In other words, he did not provide sufficient information to the employer to determine the necessary accommodations and, therefore, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment on the failure-to-accommodate claim.

The plaintiff's claim that he was fired on account of his disability in violation of the ADA also failed.  The ultimate question in an employment discrimination termination case is whether a reasonable juror could conclude that the plaintiff would have kept her job if she was not disabled (or a member of another protected class), and everything else had remained the same.  One method of proof is by showing that the employer's proffered reasons for the termination decision were pretext for discrimination.  In connection with the issue of pretext, the question is not whether the employer's proffered reason for the adverse employment action was inaccurate or unfair, but whether the employer honestly believed the reason it offered to explain the employment termination or other adverse employment action.  Pretext requires more than merely faulty reasoning or bad business judgment on the part of the employer; pretext is a phony reason for the adverse employment action.  Disparate treatment by the employer of the plaintiff and a similarly situated employee outside of her protected class is one way to establish pretext.  In this case, however, the plaintiff and the employee the plaintiff identified as a comparator were not similarly situated enough for the court to infer that the stated reasons for their differential treatment were pretext for discrimination.