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Sixth Circuit issues complicated ruling on disability as a factor in employee's discimination claim

Susan Lewis sued the Humboldt Acquisition Corporation, her employer, claiming disability discrimination.  Due to a conflict in language between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII, and the federal Rehabilitation Act, the trial court  told the jury in Lewis' case that she could prevail only if she proved that her disability was "solely" the cause of her employer's adverse employment action.  She had maintained that it was enough to prove, under the ADA, that her disability was "a motivating factor" in the employer's adverse action against her.

The jury ruled in the employer's favor and ultimately the Sixth Circuit overturned the case and returned it for a new trial.  The judges could not agree on a rationale for the decision, however, and they also failed to harmonize the Sixth Circuit's analysis of the statutory conflict with other federal circuits.  While most circuits have expressly adopted the "motivating factor" language, the Sixth Circuit majority refused to adopt that standard.  Instead, it held that a hybrid instruction would have been appropriate.

The plaintiff was fired from her position as an RN with the defendant company.  She claimed it was an act of discrimination based on her difficulties with ambulation and occasional need to use a wheelchair.  The company claimed that she was fired solely because of an outburst that occurred at work, where she allegedly cursed and criticized  her supervisors.  The Sixth Circuit majority noted that for 17 years, the Court had required the use of the "sole cause" language; it also noted that the standard was increasingly "out of touch" with other Federal Courts who considered the issue.  "Our interpretation of the ADA not only is out of sync with the other circuits, [the Court concluded] but it also is wrong."

Based on this analysis, the great majority of Sixth Circuit judges concluded that the "sole cause" language should apply only in non-ADA rehabilitation cases.  It also concluded, however, that the "motivating factor" language from Title VII should not be used in ADA claims.  Rather, the Court relied on a prior precedent to hold that an ADA claimant must prove that discrimination occurred "because of" the disability.  In other words, to be actionable, disability discrimination must be a causative factor in an adverse employment action taken by the employer, but it need not be the sole cause.   The nurse will have a new trial with the jury instructed according to this more accurate legal standard.

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