Disability Discrimination (Termination) Claim Improperly Dismissed on Summary Judgment, 8th Circuit Holds

In a recent decision, Anderson v. KAR Global, 2023 WL 5493754 (8th Cir. Aug. 25, 2023), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed a lower court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim asserted under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In evaluating plaintiff’s claim, the court applied the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Under this framework, a plaintiff must first establish a “prima facie case” of discrimination. If plaintiff does so the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reason for the alleged adverse action (here, termination). Finally, the plaintiff must show that the proffered reason was, in reality, a “pretext” for discrimination.

Finding that the plaintiff and defendant met their respective burdens under the first two steps, it then evaluated the third:

Turning to pretext, we have recognized several ways a plaintiff may create a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether an employer’s proffered explanation is pretext for discrimination. One of those ways is “by persuading the court that a prohibited reason more likely motivated the employer.” Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1047 (8th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted) (cleaned up). “Though the burden is on the plaintiff to provide evidence of pretext, to survive summary judgment she need not definitively prove that her employer’s reason for firing her was pretextual—rather, she simply must ‘adduc[e] enough admissible evidence to raise genuine doubt as to the legitimacy of the defendant’s motive.’ ”

Anderson argues that a reasonable jury could determine that Hopkins made the decision to terminate Anderson because of his medical restriction, and only retroactively claimed a performance-based concern after HR advised her that terminating an employee due to his disability could be “an issue.” We agree. Before his seizure, Anderson had only positive feedback about his role post-merger. And after his seizure, Anderson’s supervisors “pushed hard” to accommodate him. By December 6, however, ADESA had changed course regarding Anderson. The evidence shows that Hopkins sent an email to HR about an employee with a “medical restriction” who had been “identified” for termination, asking if this could be “an issue.” Only after she learned that it could be a problem did Hopkins respond with specific criticisms of his performance. ADESA argues that, because Anderson does not dispute he was underperforming compared to his peers, there can be no pretext. But neither Comer nor Hopkins was able to say when they took these performance assessments into consideration. A reasonable jury could conclude that Hopkins looked into Anderson’s job performance only after she learned of his disability and accommodation request and had decided to terminate him.

Drawing all reasonable inferences in Anderson’s favor, Anderson has raised genuine doubt as to ADESA’s proffered reasons for his termination. “Because the employer’s ‘motive and intent are at the heart of a discrimination case,’ the central inquiry ‘is whether [disability] was a factor in the employment decision at the moment it was made.’ ” E.E.O.C. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 477 F.3d 561, 570 (8th Cir. 2007) (alteration in original) (emphasis in original) (quoting Sabree v. United Bhd. of Carpenters & Joiners Local No. 33, 921 F.2d 396, 403 (1st Cir. 1990)). “An employer is prohibited from inventing a ‘post hoc rationalization for its actions at the rebuttal stage of the case.’ Therefore, unless the employer articulates a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for [terminating] the plaintiff that ‘actually motivated the decision, the reason is legally insufficient.’ ” Id. (emphasis in original) (citations omitted) (quoting Sabree, 921 F.2d at 404). A reasonable jury could conclude that Hopkins was unaware of Anderson’s professional shortcomings at the time she first identified him for termination, and thus this post hoc rationale could not have factored into her termination decision.

The court thus held that since there remain a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the proffered reasons for plaintiff’s termination were a pretext for discrimination (and retaliation), the district court’s decision must be reversed.

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