Court rejects employer's claim that legally blind employee "did not suffer from a disability"
This week the Court of Appeals sent back to Washtenaw County a disability discrimination claim filed by Linda Billings. Billings suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable, untreatable condition that has been progressively robbing her eyesight since age 13. She was hired by Michigan Ability Partners in 2005. There was a conflict in evidence about the quality of her job performance, and also disputed testimony about the employer's efforts to accommodate his disability. In any event, she was fired and the CEO of the employer told her co-workers it was because her job had been changed to require that she drive (something which Billings, obviously, could not do). Billings was then replaced by a co-worker who was not required to drive. She filed suit, alleging employment discrimination and failure to accommodate. After a discovery dispute tainted her lawyer's conduct, the Court agreed with the employer that she was not "disabled" and had not met the requirements to establish a failure to accommodate.On appeal, the Court upheld the failure to accommodate ruling. It noted that the applicable statute requires a request for accommodation to be in writing. Further, the employer must inform employees of the writing requirement and Michigan Ability Partners had done this in an employee handbook which Billings acknowledged receiving. Therefore, the employer was not "estopped" from relying on the absence of a written request for accommodation.
With respect to the disability discrimination claim, however, the Court overturned the trial judge's summary ruling and returned the case to the lower court where the competing evidence must be weighed by the trier of fact. The Court noted that the lower court committed error in ruling that the legally blind plaintiff was not "disabled" under the statute and the Billings had established a prima facie case. While the employer had presented evidence to rebut Billings' claim, Billings had responded with proofs creating an inference that the employer's unrelated termination defense was a "mere pretext." With this conflicting evidence and an inference of pretextual behavior, the jury must decide whether Billings was fired because of her disability or because of poor performance.