Circuits come closer on ‘motivating factor’ test in ADA cases

When the federal circuit courts of appeal disagree on the interpretation of a federal law, a couple of things can happen. At times, the U.S. Supreme Court can settle the matter by hearing a case and rendering a decision. Another possibility is that the circuits can slowly align over time, agreeing one by one that a particular interpretation makes more sense.

An illustration of the latter is a recent case regarding the interpretation of a key phrase in the Americans with Disabilities Act. The decision brings the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals almost into alignment with the other federal appeals courts, including Wisconsin’s 7th Circuit, in its reading of the law’s prohibition of discrimination “because of” a disability.

The complaint was filed by a nurse at a retirement home. She needed to use a wheelchair because her medical condition made walking difficult. The company fired her, explaining (in court documents) that a profanity-laced outburst directed at her supervisors was the reason. The former employee claimed that her discharge was related to her disability.

Before this decision, the 6th Circuit was the only court to interpret the ADA’s “because of” language as meaning that the disability must be the sole cause of the employment action. Every other circuit has adopted a “motivating factor” test that allows a jury to determine that the disability may not have been the only reason but was certainly a contributing factor.

The majority in this case decided that the “motivating factor” standard was going a little too far. The ruling abandons the “sole cause” analysis, but, in spite of several stinging dissents, follows a standard set by the Supreme Court in an age discrimination case. Juries must consider whether the employment action would have occurred “but for” the plaintiff’s disability.

What’s the difference? We’ll explain in our next post.

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, “6th Circuit shifts test for disability discrimination,” Terry Baynes, May 25, 2012

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