New Decision Affirms Anomaly In Sixth Circuit ADA Law

The Sixth Circuit issued a decision in Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp. on March 17, 2011 that is based on an interesting anomaly in the Sixth Circuit’s treatment of ADA claims.  Ms. Lewis was a registered nurse who began working at the Humboldt Manor Nursing Home in July 2004.  Sometime in September 2005, she developed a medical condition that “among other things, affected her lower extremities.”  As a result of the condition, Ms. Lewis sometimes used a wheelchair.  Humboldt Manor terminated Ms. Lewis’ employment in March 2006 because of an “outburst” that she had at the nurses station.  Three co-workers testified that she yelled, criticized supervisors and used profanity.  Ms. Lewis and another employee testified that she was upset but did not act inappropriately.  Ms. Lewis alleged that the true reason for her termination was her use of a wheelchair and that Humboldt Manor exaggerated the severity of her behavior to use it as a pretext for disability discrimination. 

Ms. Lewis filed a claim under the ADA and in her proposed jury instructions stated that the jury must determine whether her perceived disability was a “motivating factor” in the termination decision.  The District Court instructed the jury that Ms. Lewis could only recover if her disability was the “sole reason” for the decision to terminate.  The jury concluded that Ms. Lewis was a qualified individual under the ADA and that Humboldt Manor regarded her as disabled.  However, the jury determined that her disability was not the sole reason for her termination and the District Court entered judgment in favor of Humboldt Manor.  Ms. Lewis appealed on the single issue of whether the Court had erred in its “sole reason” instruction.

The Sixth Circuit noted that the ADA prohibits discrimination “on the basis of” disability.  Of the ten circuits to consider the causation issue, eight apply a “motivating factor” (or “substantial cause”) test, under which a plaintiff must only show that a disability was a motivating factor of the adverse employment action.  However, the current law in the Sixth Circuit is that a plaintiff must show that his or her disability was the “sole reason” for the adverse employment action; this is sometimes referred to as the “solely” standard.  The Court noted that a panel of the Sixth Circuit may not overrule another panel unless an inconsistent decision of the United States Supreme Court requires it or the Sixth Circuit sitting en banc overrules the prior decision.  At present, no Supreme Court cases are inconsistent with the Sixth Circuit’s “sole reason” standard.  Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s judgment in favor of Humboldt Manor. 

I suspect that Ms. Lewis will seek en banc review of the decision but for now the “sole reason” standard of causation applies in the Sixth Circuit.  The Tenth Circuit is the only other circuit that currently applies the “solely” standard. 

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