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Sixth Circuit Overturns Longstanding Americans With Disabilities Act Precedent, Establishes “But-For” Standard For Proving Violations.


Sixth Circuit Overturns Longstanding Americans With Disabilities Act Precedent, Establishes “But-For” Standard For Proving Violations.

On Friday, May 25, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued its opinion in Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., in which it overturned seventeen years’ worth of decisions requiring a plaintiff alleging discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to show that their disability was the “sole” reason for an adverse employment action taken against them.  The Court explained that the proper standard of proof for a plaintiff alleging disability discrimination under the ADA paralleled the one established under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”)-- a showing that “but for” the disability, the adverse employment action would not have taken place.  This decision certainly will have an effect upon ADA claims brought in the Sixth Circuit into the foreseeable future, but exactly what that effect will be is open to debate.

In Lewis, the plaintiff alleged that her employer, Humboldt, had discriminated against her when it terminated her employment as a registered nurse at one of the company’s retirement homes in March, 2006.  Humboldt responded that it had fired Lewis not because of her disability, but because of an outburst at work in which she yelled, used profanity, and criticized her supervisors.  The case eventually was tried to a jury, which found in Humboldt’s favor based upon a jury instruction that Lewis could only prevail if, “the fact that [Lewis] was a qualified individual with a disability was the sole reason for the defendant’s decision to terminate her employment.”  Lewis appealed, arguing that the trial court should have instructed the jury that she had proven her case if the jury concluded that “the complained of discrimination was a motivating factor in the adverse employment decision.”  The Sixth Circuit agreed that the jury instruction given by the trial court was improper, but also found that instruction requested by Lewis was incorrect.

The Court analyzed the history of the Sixth Circuit’s “sole reason” standard, and found that it had its genesis in a 1995 case, Maddox v. University of Tennessee, brought under both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  There, the Court had extended the “sole reason” standard found in the language of the Rehabilitation Act to the parallel ADA claim – an extension that did not appear to be founded in the language of the ADA.  The legal standard stuck, however, and it became the standard in the Sixth Circuit for the next seventeen years, despite its rejection by every other federal circuit.

After reviewing the text of the ADA and comparing it to the Rehabilitation Act, the Court found that its prior rulings had been in error.  The operative language of the ADA prohibited discrimination “because of” disability, while the operative language of the Rehabilitation Act barred discrimination “solely by reason of disability.”  The more restrictive language of the Rehabilitation Act supported the “sole reason” standard, but that language was missing from the ADA.  Accordingly, the Court reasoned, its prior decisions adopting the “sole reason” standard were incorrect.  A new standard was needed.

That new standard was not, however, the “motivating factor” language advocated by Lewis.  The Court conducted a similar review of the ADA, comparing its language to the operative language of Title VII, from which the “motivating factor” standard was derived, and found that differences in the text of the two statutes also did not support use of “motivating factor” in ADA cases.

Instead, the Sixth Circuit held that the proper standard to be used by a jury is one that properly reflects the “because of” language contained within the ADA.  The same “because of” language is contained in the ADEA and was found by the United States Supreme Court to require a “but for” instruction to the jury in Gross v. FBL Financial Services.  Because the language is the same, and the overarching purpose of the two statutes is the same, the Sixth Circuit found that the “but for” instruction for ADA plaintiff should be the same as well.

The decision was not without its detractors.  Several judges wrote lengthy dissents arguing in favor of the “motivating factor” language adopted by the Sixth Circuit, claiming that the “but for” standard “…suggests a much more limited basis for recovery by a plaintiff than would be indicated by the motivating-factor standard….”  Lewis at p. 18 (Clay, dissenting).  And, to the extent the goal of the Court was to lessen the standard for plaintiffs in disability claims, the dissents would seem to have a point.  “But-for” is not far from a “sole cause” standard; the burden on a ADA plaintiff remains higher (perhaps substantially higher) than the burden on a Title VII plaintiff.

But in terms of analyzing the actual language of the statute, it is difficult to criticize the Court’s holding.  Though questions remain about how trial courts will interpret the new standard in practice, there can be no doubt that the standard has been lowered for ADA plaintiffs and brought more in line with those issued by the other circuit courts.