On August 21, 2020, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston threw out a jury verdict handed down in Maine Federal Court in favor of an employer in a disability discrimination case. The First Circuit held that the trial court committed reversible error “when it instructed the jury that, for a disabled employee to make out a failure-to-accommodate claim, he must demonstrate that he needed an accommodation to perform the essential functions of his job.”
In Bell v. O’Reilly Auto Enterprises, LLC, the plaintiff store manager suffered from a number of disabling impairments, including Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD and major depression. He worked without accommodation when his job required him to work approximately fifty (50) hours per week. But he began suffering symptoms (including painful motor tics, uncontrollable trembling and diminished ability to concentrate), when his store lost employees and the defendant prohibited him from scheduling employees for overtime, such that he was required to work nearly 100 hours per week. The plaintiff’s doctor completed a form requesting that the defendant accommodate the plaintiff’s disabling impairments by reducing his scheduled hours. The defendant refused to grant the proposed accommodation, rejected the doctor’s invitation to discuss it, and fired the plaintiff.
The plaintiff filed a disability discrimination lawsuit in Maine Federal Court alleging that the defendant violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) when it failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation. At the trial of the matter, the judge instructed the jury that the plaintiff was only entitled to an accommodation if he needed the accommodation in order to do the essential functions of his job. The jury returned a verdict for the defendant. The plaintiff had testified at trial that “if there were no other option, then I would have found a way” to work the hours needed to get the job done.
Finding the trial judge’s jury instruction an incorrect statement of the law, the First Circuit vacated the jury verdict and ordered a new trial. “An employee who can, with some difficulty, perform the essential functions of his job without accommodation remains eligible to request and receive a reasonable accommodation,” the First Circuit held. The First Circuit clarified that a plaintiff alleging a failure-to-accommodate claim need show only three (3) elements: (1) he is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he is nonetheless qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) the employer knew of the disability but declined to reasonably accommodate it upon request. “A plaintiff can make out this kind of claim even when an employer has ‘pronounced itself fully satisfied with the disabled employee’s level of performance’ before a request,” said the Court.
Should you need assistance with an employment discrimination claim, you should contact an experienced employee rights attorneys such as Benjamin T. King, Esquire of Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C. Attorney King is the current President of the New Hampshire Chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association and has been ranked in the top 5% of lawyers in New England representing employees in employment discrimination claims, continuously since 2014. Attorney King can be reached at 1-800-240-1988 or fill out our online contact form.