Disability Discrimination Case Against IBM Continues

In Noon v. IBM, the Southern District of New York recently ruled against defendant on plaintiff’s discrimination, failure-to-accommodate, and retaliation claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Plaintiff sued her employer, International Business Machines (IBM), for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Plaintiff, who began working for IBM in 2000, eventually was promoted to a Director on the Cloud Computing team.

Eventually she was diagnosed with degenerative stenosis of the spine, resulting in one herniated and two bulging cervical discs and bone spurs. Plaintiff alleged that the company violated the ADA in three ways, namely:  (1) subjecting her to an adverse action because of her disability, (2) failing to accommodate her disability, and (3) retaliating against her for requesting an accommodation (namely, a lighter laptop and flying business class on prolonged flights).

First, the court held that plaintiff presented enough evidence under the “adverse employment action” theory.  Plaintiff demonstrated that she suffered an “adverse employment action” because “her job responsibilities were altered in a ‘materially negative way.'”  She also demonstrated the existence of discriminatory intent by, for example, showing that her team leader’s attitude towards her “changed markedly after she disclosed her disability and requested accommodations.”

There was a “sequence of events” that gave “gives rise to an inference that IBM reduced Plaintiff’s responsibilities and later refused to offer her a position because States wanted to replace Plaintiff with Hall, an employee without a disability who could travel internationally without the need for an expensive accommodation.”

Second, plaintiff presented sufficient evidence that IBM failed to accommodate her disability, a form of prohibited discrimination under the ADA.  The court held that her requested accommodations – a lightweight laptop and business class travel – were reasonable, and that they would not impose an “undue hardship” on IBM.

In addition, while IBM did offer plaintiff alternative accommodations that avoided the need for travel (namely, a reassignment to a “special project”, a part-time schedule, and leaves of absence), these options were not “reasonable”, because of the potential negative effects that they could have on plaintiff’s career.

The court also found sufficient evidence of pretext, citing “evidence of a sequence of events that would allow a reasonable factfinder to infer that the true motivation behind the restructuring of the Cloud Computing team was to replace Plaintiff with an employee with no disability” and the fact that “only after Plaintiff disclosed her disability and requested accommodations did States bring on a new team member” with no disability to whom plaintiff “lost clients, subordinates, and responsibilities” and who was promoted soon after plaintiff went back on disability leave.

Third, the court held that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence that IBM retaliated against her for requesting accommodations.

Since plaintiff offered enough evidence of an “adverse employment action” for purposes of her discrimination claim, she met the broader standard of “adverse employment action” applied to retaliation claims. Specifically, “IBM’s actions—reducing Plaintiff’s job responsibilities and refusing to offer her a position after her long-term disability leave-were “harmful to the point that [they] could well dissuade a reasonable worker” from requesting an accommodation.”

The court found sufficient evidence of causation and pretext, such as that IBM transferred plaintiff’s international job duties and subordinates to a non-disabled employee “just a few months after she requested accommodations and right after she returned from her first disability leave.”  It also found that “IBM resolved the problem of paying for Plaintiff’s requested travel accommodations by taking away her responsibilities that required extended travel.”

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