When someone sues under the ADA for discrimination, the courts sort out what happens according to a process known as a “shifting burden.” That’s a dialogue of accusations and responses that allows each party to explain its side of the story:
1. An employee makes a prima facie case of discrimination. This is a statement that makes a claim of discrimination that, without hearing the company’s side of the story, would add up to discrimination.
Example: A linen service company terminated an area manager. The manager had received a doctor’s note saying he had suffered a permanent back injury that would permanently and severely limit his ability to lift. The worker had served for 19 years with the company and received excellent performance evaluations, including one two weeks prior to the firing.
That’s a prima facie discrimination, the court said. Unanswered, that looks like discrimination.
The burden now shifts over to the employer to explain its decisions.
2. The company offers a non-discriminatory reason for its actions. Just because something seems discriminatory on the surface doesn’t mean it is.
Example: The company explained that the worker was no longer able to perform the job with or without reasonable accommodation. The worker’s own doctor said that he would not be able to lift the required amounts ever again.
They had offered the worker months of light duty so he could recover from his injuries; when the doctor said the worker would never recover, it offered him a transfer to a lower-level sales position. But they had to have someone who could do some lifting in that position. The worker refused the transfer and so was terminated.
3. The employee then has to explain why the company’s explanation is just a pretext trying to hide discrimination.
Example: The employee’s case failed here. The company had worked with the worker during the rehabilitation period and the doctor said he could never return fully. It had even offered another position. In light of those facts, the company won a summary judgment.
Tried to do right by employee
Bottom line: When worker suffer injuries, work according to medical guidelines. This company did right by the worker by offering light duty, but when it was apparent that recovery was not forthcoming, they offered a different position. It was probably the best choice under difficult circumstances.
Cite: Ruggles v. Virginia Linen, No. 6:12-cv-00064, W.D. Va., 8/30/13.
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