LITIGATION: Differing decisions illustrate disability discrimination pleading requirements
by Matthew H. Parker
In June 2018, Chief Judge William E. Smith of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island dismissed an employee’s disability discrimination complaint for failing to adequately allege that she had a disability. Less than two months later, Judge John J. McConnell (of the same court) denied an employer’s motion to dismiss that made the same argument. A review of the two opinions provides a refresher on the pleading requirements in federal court—and a reminder that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) precludes discrimination based on both actual and perceived disabilities.
Failure to identify a disability doomed complaint
In Signore v. Rhode Island, the employee alleged that she had been terminated from her employment at the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (DLT) in violation of the ADA. Although her complaint didn’t specify the nature of her disability, she claimed to have submitted medical documentation to the DLT in support of requests for “reasonable accommodations.” She alleged that the DLT had failed to provide those accommodations and that it had subsequently terminated her and treated similarly situated employees more favorably. A letter attached to her complaint alleged that before her termination, she had been allowed to take a leave of absence, she had submitted to an independent medical examination, she had submitted four documents about her “diagnosis” from a psychologist, and that she had sought permission to arrive late intermittently and to take extended bathroom breaks.
The DLT requested that the court dismiss the employee’s complaint, arguing that even if her allegations were true, she had failed to state a claim. Chief Judge Smith agreed. Concluding that her only claim that potentially passed muster was her failure to accommodate claim, the judge reasoned that in neither her complaint nor the attached letter had she identified a disability covered by the ADA.
Although she had alleged that her “diagnosis” was “covered by the ADA,” the judge noted that “whether a disability is covered by the ADA is a matter of law.” Under the Rules of Civil Procedure, courts need not credit as true allegations that make legal conclusions when considering motions to dismiss. The court could not “blindly credit” the employee’s “legal conclusion” that her medical condition was an ADA-covered disability.
Unidentified condition counts if employer ‘perceived’ a disability
In Dacier v. Anchor Medical Associates, the employee alleged that she had experienced unspecified “physical and emotional injuries” at work, was taken by ambulance to an urgent care center, underwent medical evaluations and treatments, and notified her employer that she was receiving treatments, yet she was fired—seven days after the incident—in violation of the ADA and state laws. She claimed that her employer had discriminated against her based on her “disability, its perception that she was disabled, and in retaliation for availing herself [of] her rights under the RI Workers’ Compensation laws.”
As in the Signore case, the employer requested to dismiss the case, arguing that the employee had failed to sufficiently plead the existence of an ADA-covered disability. This time, however, the court disagreed.
Parsing the ADA’s text, Judge McConnell noted that the statute defines the term “disability” as: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities . . . or . . . being regarded as having such an impairment.” The statute goes on:
An individual meets the requirement of “being regarded as having such an impairment” if the individual establishes that . . . she has been subjected to [a prohibited] action because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.
Since this suggests the ADA also protects employees who aren’t disabled at all but who are “wrongly perceived to be so,” Judge McConnell concluded it was plausible that the employer “could have perceived” the employee as disabled based on her allegation that it “had actual and constructive knowledge that she was under medical care.”
In other words, even though the employee’s “perceived” disability was just as undefined as her actual disability, Judge McConnell was willing to “infer” that until she was released from medical care, her “type and level of actually disability” couldn’t be determined with a quantum of clarity. Comparing the case to the “blue-collar folktale where a construction site foreman yells, ‘you’re fired,’ to a worker falling from a scaffold in an effort to escape liability,” the judge denied the employer’s motion to dismiss.
Decisions at odds with each other?
Chief Judge Smith’s decision in Signore and Judge McConnell’s decision in Dacier are hard to reconcile with each other. In both cases, the employees failed to define what actual or perceived disabilities entitled them to protection, and in both cases the employers allegedly had notice that the employees were under medical care. Signore alleged that her psychologist had provided documentation to the DLT, and Dacier alleged that she was “in regular communication” with her employer “regarding her medical treatment.”
In Dacier, however, Judge McConnell was willing to give the employee the benefit of the doubt, and in Signore, Chief Judge Smith was not. Essentially, two judges in the same court reached what appear to be contrary decisions regarding whether employees’ conclusory allegations that they are “disabled” or “perceived as disabled” are entitled to credence.
The most glaring distinction between the Signore and Dacier cases (aside from the presiding judges) is the fact that Signore was representing herself, whereas Dacier had counsel. Signore submitted a handwritten complaint that failed to comply with several of the technical pleading requirements, and she filed it first in federal court. Dacier’s complaint was removed from state court (which has more liberal pleading requirements), it just looked more official (as a typed, appropriately numbered document), and her lawyer is an established plaintiff-side employment attorney. Although pro se pleadings (i.e., those filed by persons representing themselves) are reviewed more liberally, one can assume that Signore would have had fared better had she “lawyered up”.
Takeaways for employers
These cases illustrate two points for employers.
First, although the state and federal procedural rules are very similar when it comes to pleading requirements, the U.S. Supreme Court has construed the federal rules to impose a higher burden on employees to plead their claims with specificity. Unlike in Rhode Island state courts, which can only dismiss claims that cannot prevail under any “conceivable” set of facts, federal courts aren’t required to be so forgiving. Employees in federal courts need to include enough detail in their complaints to set forth a “plausible” entitlement to relief. As such, if you are defending a claim and have any means to get it transferred or removed to federal court, you should generally try to do so. If Signore had brought her complaint in state court and succeeded in keeping it there, it probably would have survived a request to dismiss.
Second, even if you have valid performance (or disciplinary) reasons to terminate someone who is also disabled (or potentially disabled), don’t assume that this will shield you completely from a lawsuit. The employer in Dacier claimed that her performance problems predated her injuries at work, but it terminated her only seven days after she went out on leave. The very close temporal connection between her injuries and the adverse employment action made it easy for the court to infer that the injuries had something to do with her termination. It begs the question why the employer hadn’t terminated her sooner, and it will likely prove to be a high hurdle to overcome without necessitating a full-blown trial. Sometimes, it’s better for an employer to let things play out longer with an underperforming employee who also falls into a protected category before making such a risky move.
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