Seventh Circuit Rules on Accommodation and Causal Connection Needed for ADA Claims
May 3, 2016
In Hooper v. Proctor Health Care Inc., 804 F.3d 846 (7th Cir. 2015), the Seventh Circuit held that an employee's allegation of being a "qualified individual" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8), is insufficient, by itself, to merit a jury verdict in a "reasonable accommodation" case. Additionally, the court reaffirmed the settled law that an employee who can perform all essential functions of the job without regard to any physical or mental limitations has no basis for a reasonable accommodation claim under the ADA. Finally, the court confirmed that an employee claiming discrimination under the ADA must show evidence of "but-for" causal connection between the disability and termination.
Facts of the Case
Hooper, a family practice physician, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2000, which required him to regularly see a psychologist in order to maintain his Illinois medical license. On April 16, 2010, after an ugly confrontation with his neighbor, Hooper revealed his diagnosis to Proctor's Director of Human Resources for the first time and discussed the possibility of a medical leave of absence. Hooper met with a psychiatrist who agreed that Hooper should be placed on leave and wrote him a note to be off work for medical reasons. Later, the psychiatrist determined that Hooper could return to work.
After Hooper was independently examined pursuant to Proctor's request, he thought that he would not be able to return to work until Proctor received the examiner's report, which could take weeks. In fact, however, the examiner orally informed the Director that Hooper could return to work immediately. Although the examiner found Hooper fit to return to work without any specific restrictions, he also suggested certain accommodations that Proctor could make in order to decrease Hooper's stress level and possibly improve his workplace performance.
The administrative assistant at Proctor attempted to contact Hooper and left two phone messages indicating that he should return to work the following day. A subsequent third message was left for Hooper before an attempt at a fourth message resulted in notification that his voicemail box was full. Hooper did not respond to these messages. During the same time, Hooper's mother passed away, and he spent a week in Michigan attending the funeral and managing her affairs. Hooper testified that he left a message with Proctor that his mother had passed away, and that he would be out of town, but there was no concrete evidence to substantiate the testimony.
Finally, on August 16, Proctor sent Hooper a letter indicating the numerous attempts to contact him had been unsuccessful. The letter further stated that Hooper's employment would be terminated if Proctor did not hear from him by the close of business on August 20. Hooper's employment was terminated on August 23.
Hooper received the termination letter the next day and immediately contacted the administrative assistant who then related the message to Proctor's Human Resources Department. On October 7, Hooper filed a request that his termination be reviewed. Because the request was not made within seven days of termination, pursuant to Proctor's policy, it was denied.
After filing an administrative claim alleging disability discrimination and retaliation, Hooper filed suit against Proctor in the United Stated District Court for the Central District of Illinois. The complaint alleged that the August 16 letter was pretext to terminate Hooper's employment because he was a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA and the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA). Notably, the complaint failed to allege a "failure to accommodate" claim under the ADA. The district court granted Proctor summary judgment on both claims, finding that Hooper's ADA claim failed as a matter of law, and the IHRA claim was waived.
Failure to Accommodate Claim
On appeal, Hooper alleged that the complaint stated a failure to accommodate claim because he alleged that he was a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA. The statutory definition of a qualified individual is one who, "with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds." 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8) (emphasis added).
The supposed bases of Hooper's claim were the independent examiner's suggested accommodations, which Proctor never discussed with Hooper. However, this allegation was never pled in the complaint. Further, the court held that the "mere invocation… [of the word]… 'accommodation' in the cited definition of qualified individual did not provide Proctor with adequate notice." Hooper, 804 F.3d at 852.
Despite Hooper's failure to accommodate claim being dismissed, the court held that the merits of such a claim would fail even if it had been properly preserved. A plaintiff cannot state a failure to accommodate claim if "she was able to perform all essential functions of her job without regard to her physical or mental limitations." Brumfield v. City of Chicago 735 F.3d 619, 632 (7th Cir. 2013).
In Hooper's case, the independent examiner cleared him to return to work without accommodations. The suggested accommodations were merely recommendations that may have lessened his stress level in the workplace and improved the performance of his medical practice. Because Hooper's disability, in and of itself, did not affect his ability to perform the essential functions of his job, Proctor had no duty to make accommodations under the ADA. Therefore, Hooper's claim would have failed on the merits had it been properly preserved.
ABA Discrimination Claim
Under the ADA, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees "on the basis of disability." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Plaintiffs may proceed under wither the direct or indirect method of proof to establish an ADA discrimination claim. Taylor-Novotny v. Health Alliance Med. Plans, Inc., 772 F.3d 478, 489 (7th Cir. 2014).
To establish a prima facie case under the direct method, Hooper had to show that: (1) he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he was qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation; and (3) he was terminated because of his disability. Bunn v. Khoury Enterprises, Inc., 753 F.3d 676, 683 (7th Cir. 2014). To establish the third prong, regarding termination, Hooper had to show that his disability was a "but for" cause of his termination, which can be established through direct or circumstantial evidence. See Serwatka v. Rockwell Automation, Inc., 591 F.3d 957, 961–62 (7th Cir. 2010); Hooper, 804 F.3d at 853.
For a prima facie case under the indirect method, Hooper had to establish that: (1) he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he was meeting Proctor's legitimate expectations; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) Proctor treated similarly situated non-disabled employees more favorably. Id. If Hooper had established his prima facie case, the burden would have shifted to Proctor to present evidence showing a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action. Id. If Proctor satisfied this burden, Hooper would have then been required to present evidence showing that Proctor's stated reason was pretextual. Id.
Hooper never specified under which method he was proceeding and, instead, generally argued that Proctor sought a reason to fire him as soon as it learned of his mental disorder. The courts analyzed Hooper's claim under the indirect method only and deemed his lack of evidence as to the treatment of similarly situated individuals (a "comparator class") to be sufficient to defeat his claim. Id.
Hooper made two arguments that he believed warranted a question of fact as to his discrimination claim. First, he argued that Proctor's Director of Human Resources indicated that she had a contentious relationship with her mother-in-law, who was bipolar, during the meeting in which Hooper divulged that he was diagnosed in 2000. Hooper also argued that his personnel file grew after his meeting with the Director, which indicated, he argued, an adverse effect stemming from his disclosure of his mental disability.
The court declined to lend merit to either argument. First, the "stray remark" by the Director regarding her mother-in-law was deemed insufficient to support a discrimination claim. See id. at 854 (citing Fleishman v. Continental Cas. Co., 698 F.3d 598, 605 (7th Cir. 2012) ("[I]solated comments are not probative of discrimination unless they are 'contemporaneous with the discharge or causally related to the discharge decision-making process.'")). With regard to the growth of his personnel file, Hooper offered no information about the actual contents of the file. Therefore, any inferences drawn on the sheer size of the file would be based on speculation and insufficient to survive summary judgment. Hooper, 804 F.3dat 855 (citing Herzog v. Graphic Packaging Int'l, Inc., 742 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014)).
In addition to the lack of any probative evidence of discrimination provided by Hooper, the court also noted that Hooper failed to show any type of connection between the alleged discriminatory animus and the termination decision, which is required to prove such a claim. See Good v. Univ. of Chicago Med. Ctr., 673 F.3d 670, 676 (7th Cir. 2012). The court found that Hooper was terminated when he failed to return to work after Proctor made numerous efforts to contact him. This termination decision, the court found, did not suggest a discriminatory motive. Hooper, 804 F.3d at 855. The court affirmed the district court's summary judgment in favor of Proctor. Id.
Practical Lessons from the Case
Hooper decision demonstrates the importance of documenting communications with employees and taking every reasonable effort to provide notice of unacceptable behavior or performance prior to termination. The key facts in Hooper related to the fact that Proctor attempted to contact Hooper numerous times prior to termination, and he was unresponsive. If a similar situation arises in your business, speak with your general counsel or contact your outside counsel to discuss the situation prior to termination. A short conversation could prevent a discrimination or retaliation claim and lengthy litigation.