Last Wednesday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North and South Carolina) released opinions in two lawsuits brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Fourth Circuit typically reviews plaintiffs’ ADA claims with a high degree of scrutiny, and remains employer-friendly when compared with other federal appellate courts.
The first case, Wilson v. Phoenix Specialty Mfg. Co., Inc., the plaintiff was a supervisor in a manufacturing plant who developed Parkinson’s Disease. After suffering a panic attack in the workplace, he took a short leave of absence, but returned thereafter without medical restrictions. The plaintiff alleged that after his return his employer began treating him differently, including taking away his responsibilities for computer-based data input. He claimed that within a year, he was let go in a purported reduction in force, even though he was replaced by another employee.
In a 2-1 decision, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict for the plaintiff, concluding that he had been illegally discriminated against and denied accommodation under the ADA. Although the plaintiff was not actually disabled (his condition was controlled through medication), the employer erroneously regarded him as disabled, thus bringing him under ADA protections. The employer’s use of its company physician to provide a second opinion after the employee had been cleared to return to work by his own doctor was viewed as evidence that he was regarded as disabled.
The second case, EEOC v. Federal Express Corp., involved an appeal of a large punitive damages award against an employer found to have failed to provide reasonable accommodations to a disabled employee. The employee in question was deaf, and requested interpreters on multiple occasions to allow him to understand what was said at staff meetings. At trial, the jury awarded him $8000 in compensatory damages, and $100,000 in punitive damages. FedEx appealed, claiming that the punitive damages award was unjustified and excessive.
The Fourth Circuit again affirmed the jury verdict, finding the requisite degree of malice or reckless indifference on the part of the employer. The managers in question were aware of FedEx’s ADA policy, but largely ignored its terms. The lack of training and adherence to policy were deemed to be adequate evidence of reckless indifference to the plaintiff’s ADA rights. The written policy does not provide protection against punitive damages if it is ignored. Despite the disparity between the compensatory and punitive damages awards, the court found the amount of the verdicts to be reasonable.
Even in the employer-friendly Fourth Circuit, bad facts can result in bad decisions for employers. In both of these cases, middle management appeared ignorant of employee rights or employer obligations under the ADA. Human resource professionals should regularly train management to immediately seek personnel and legal assistance whenever they deal with situations involving employee physical or mental issues.