7th Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment on USERRA and ADA Claims

On October 6, 2015, the 7th Circuit reversed an order of summary judgment on USERRA and ADA claims brought by a member of the armed services, who alleged that her employer unlawfully discharged her on the basis of her military service and disability, PTSD.  Arroyo v. Volvo Group North America, LLC, No. 14-3618 (7th Cir. 10/6/2015).  The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) prohibits discrimination against members of the armed services.  It provides that a person who is a member of a uniformed service shall not be denied retention in employment, promotion, or any benefit of employment by an employer on the basis of that membership.  The Act also provides that discrimination exists where an employee's armed service membership was a motivating factor in the adverse employment action, unless the employer can prove that it would have taken the same adverse action in the absence of such membership.  If a plaintiff makes out a prima facie case by showing that her membership was a motivating factor, the burden of proof shifts to the employer to prove that it would have taken the same action regardless.  The motivating factor standard can be satisfied with circumstantial evidence.

In this case, a series of internal email communications between the decision-makers raised an inference that their frustration with the employee's absences that resulted from her military service led to their decision to discharge her.  The emails and other circumstantial evidence were enough to establish that her membership in the military was a motivating factor behind the discharge.  The employer did not carry its burden to demonstrate that it would have discharged her regardless.  Genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment.

The employee also claimed that the employer disciplined and discharged her on the basis of her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA prohibits disability discrimination and requires reasonable accommodation of disabilities.  In order to advance an ADA claim, an employee must have a disability within the meaning of the ADA--a physical or mental impairment that substantially interferes with one or more major life activity--and must be a qualified individual with a disability--able to perform her essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation.  An ADA discrimination claim may be established through the direct or indirect method of proof.  Ultimately, the plaintiff must prove that the employer intentionally discriminated against her by taking the subject adverse employment action because of her disability.  In this case, closely suspicious timing between the employee's diagnosis of PTSD and the commencement of a series of questionable disciplinary actions that culminated in her discharge raised an inference of disability discrimination.

The 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment as to the employee's Title VII retaliation and ADA failure to accommodate claims.

The case will proceed to a jury trial on the employee's USERRA and ADA employment termination claims.