On December 11, 2014, the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion in a case involving alleged disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that, resolving existing legal ambiguities, provides important guidance to employers and employees alike. The ADA, of course, prohibits employers from discriminating against a “qualified individual with a disability on the basis of that disability.” 42 U.S.C. 12112(a). Evaluating claims of disability discrimination, federal courts typically first determine whether the plaintiff, in this case the EEOC on behalf of an individual employee who was fired, has stated a prima facie case of disability discrimination.
It is on that point that the Fifth Circuit’s opinion is noteworthy. While the first two elements of an employee’s prima facie case have long been consistent under the law (employee is disabled and is qualified for the job), there has been ambiguity relating to the third element, which focuses on causation. In its decision last month, the Fifth Circuit examined the ambiguity arising from three separate lines of cases, and put it to rest, holding that the employee must show she was subject to adverse employment action “on account of” the disability.
Thus, “[t]o establish a prima facie discrimination claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove: (1) that he has a disability; (2) that he was qualified for the job; and (3) that he was subject to an adverse employment decision on account of his disability.” These three elements are critical to determining whether a disability discrimination lawsuit will proceed beyond the summary judgment stage. With this clarification, and, in particular, the elimination of any reference to comparison data in the third element (i.e., employers showing treatment of others to undermine allegations of discriminatory treatment), employers may find it more difficult to dispose of litigation on summary judgment by challenging the employee’s prima facie case.
EEOC v. LHC Group, Inc., No. 13-60703 (5th Cir. Dec. 11, 2014)