On Aug. 24, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the district court's decision in favor of the employee in the case of Linda Rowlands v. United Parcel Service-Fort Wayne, No. 17-3281 (7th Cir. Aug. 24, 2018). Among other things, the Seventh Circuit held that the ex-employee presented enough evidence for a jury to decide whether United Parcel Service (UPS) illegally ignored her request for a disability accommodation and wrongly terminated her for seeking that accommodation.
In Rowlands, the ex-employee worked for UPS at its Fort Wayne facility for more than 25 years before she was fired in July 2012, for allegedly changing the time on her time card. Rowlands believed that she was fired not for the alleged time card fraud, but because of a knee injury. She had suffered a number of hip and knee-related injuries in the years leading up to her termination and, during that time, she took significant time off work to recover from those injuries.
After her first termination, Rowlands filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging discrimination based on, among other things, her perceived disabilities. She also filed a grievance with her union and was ultimately reinstated in September 2012. After the reinstatement, Rowlands contended that, among other things, UPS established a new set of rules that applied only to Rowlands and that she asked for a number of accommodations for her knee injuries which were not granted. UPS fired Rowlands for the second and final time in January 2013, this time for a policy violation based on her possession of a tazer, which Rowlands claimed she carried every night at the end of her shift for years with no issue. After she was fired the second time, Rowlands filed another EEOC Charge of Discrimination based on her knee-related disability, failure to accommodate that disability and retaliation for engaging in protected conduct. This federal lawsuit followed.
In the district court's ruling awarding UPS summary judgment, the court held that Rowlands did not have a disability when she was fired in January 2013 because a doctor had cleared her to work without medical restrictions, and that Rowlands' failure to accommodate claim was waived because her 2013 EEOC charge did not explicitly state that UPS denied her request for accommodation. The court also held that Rowlands' retaliation claim failed because she did not identify a similarly-situated employee who was treated more favorably.
The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court's ruling by rejecting these conclusions. First, the court rejected the trial court’s conclusion that Rowlands was not disabled because she received clearance from a doctor. Instead, the court held that a jury should determine whether Rowlands was disabled and the extent to which she required accommodations.
Second, on the failure to accommodate claim, the court held that Rowlands' EEOC Charge was sufficient to put UPS on notice of her claim, even if she did not explicitly allege that her accommodation request was denied. As a result, she did not waive her claim that UPS did not accommodate her disability.
Last, the Seventh Circuit held that Rowlands presented enough circumstantial evidence on her retaliation claim that UPS’ stated reasons for firing her were pretext for her termination, and that this issue was also for the jury to decide.
This is the latest decision in an increasingly long list of cases reflecting a trend in the Seventh Circuit to reverse district court decisions granting summary judgment to employers. Employers should keep this in mind and be diligent as they identify and evaluate disability determinations, leave requests and other employee-related issues. Treating employees who request disability accommodations in a similar fashion to how they were treated before and as compared to other employees can go a long way in preventing or mitigating employee grievances and costly litigation.
For additional information on this case, or if you have any disability accommodation-related questions, please contact the author or your Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP attorney.