Thursday, October 18, 2018

Sixth Circuit Affirms Jury’s ADA Verdict Rejecting Job Description, but Denies Front Pay and Insurance Damages

On Tuesday, the Sixth Circuit mostly affirmed a jury’s $588K award in an ADA case (not including attorneys’ fees), but agreed that the plaintiff should have been reinstated instead of awarded front pay under the circumstances and agreed that he had failed to carry his burden of showing lost medical insurance benefits. Gunther v. Bemis Company, Inc., No. 17-6144/6185 (6th Cir. 10-16-18).   Based on testimony from plaintiff and his co-workers, the jury was entitled to conclude that overhead lifting was not an essential job function even though it was in his job description.  The testimony showed that employees typically helped each other with such lifting.  The Court rejected the employer’s argument about mitigation of damages because the older and functionally illiterate plaintiff was not able to find replacement employment that did not require him to read.  

According to the Court’s opinion, the plaintiff employee suffered a shoulder injury while working and had been placed on temporary light duty.  The employer accommodated his temporary lifting restrictions and kept him on light duty for 18 months, when they met with him for an hour, placed on leave and then fired him four months later on the grounds that he could not safely perform the essential functions of his position as reflected in his carefully drafted job description.

Several employees testified that the plaintiff could perform the essential functions of his position with reasonable accommodations because they typically helped each other with lifting and had equipment to help lift as well.

Although an employer’s job description provides evidence of a job’s essential functions, 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8), it is “not dispositive,” Rorrer v. City of Stow, 743 F.3d 1025, 1039 (6th Cir. 2014).  Yes, [the employer] presented evidence that it carefully composed the press assistant job description.  But the jury also heard evidence that these requirements were not essential, and the company and other employees did not treat them as essential.  

[The employer] adds that [Plaintiff] cannot establish his qualifications for the job based on the option that other employees could help lift heavy equipment.  Employers, it is no doubt true, need not “accommodate individuals by shifting an essential job function onto others.”  Hoskins v. Oakland Cty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, 227 F.3d 719, 729 (6th Cir. 2000).  But the argument assumes that these tasks amount to essential functions that a single employee must be able to handle.  The jury heard evidence to the contrary—that press workers often ask for and receive help with certain tasks—permitting it to find that this was not an indispensable task for individual employees.  See Camp v. BI-LO, LLC, 662 F. App’x 357, 362–63 (6th Cir. 2016).  In the last analysis, [Plaintiff] presented sufficient evidence to create a triable issue of fact over the essential job requirements of a press operator, making the final resolution one for the jury, not for us.

The Court rejected the employer’s argument that $181K in back pay should be reduced because the plaintiff did not sufficiently mitigate his damages.  The Plaintiff quit school in the 8th grade and claimed that he could not read the help ads.  He applied for a few jobs, but they did not offer many hours, or comparable pay.   In fact, he would not have qualified for his prior position, which required reading.  The jury could find that the plaintiff had been reasonably diligent in searching for new employment.

The Court agreed that the plaintiff should have been reinstated instead of being awarded $315K front pay.  The employer had indicated that it would agree to reinstatement if the jury ruled in his favor and the plaintiff requested reinstatement, but the trial court had refused to permit the jury to order reinstatement on the grounds that it was not safe for the plaintiff to return to work (a conclusion that the jury implicitly rejected in its verdict).  There was no evidence of hostility between the employer and plaintiff.  Although the employer had argued on the merits that the plaintiff could not safely perform his job, it was permitted to concede that if the jury found otherwise then he could be reinstated.  Although the front pay award was vacated, the matter was remanded to the trial court to re-determine the pay award because the plant had closed after the trial.  The plaintiff would be awarded pay from the time of trial until when the plant closed, as well as any other potential remedy given to laid off employees, such as severance pay or transfer to another plant.

The Court agreed that the Plaintiff did not show his entitlement to $92K in compensatory damages for lost insurance benefits.  At most he testified that he joined his wife’s insurance plan after his termination, but he did not offer any evidence of how much more expensive it was and whether he incurred any medical expenses that were previously covered by the defendant employer’s medical plan.

NOTICE: This summary is designed merely to inform and alert you of recent legal developments. It does not constitute legal advice and does not apply to any particular situation because different facts could lead to different results. Information here can be changed or amended without notice. Readers should not act upon this information without legal advice. If you have any questions about anything you have read, you should consult with or retain an employment attorney