Trucker’s Americans with Disabilities Act claim survives Third Circuit
June 17, 2020
A Pennsylvania trucker who alleges he was illegally fired under the Americans with Disabilities Act will get his day in court after a federal appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case.
On May 29, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Pennsylvania district court’s decision in favor of Elkhart, Ind.-based Patrick Industries’ motion for summary judgment. William Eshleman, a trucker for Patrick Industries, had sued the company for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. He claims the violations stem from taking two months of medical leave for a lung biopsy procedure. Eshleman also took two vacation days for an upper respiratory infection.
Eshleman began trucking for Patrick Industries in July 2013. He took medical leave between October 2015 and December 2015 to undergo surgery to remove a nodule from his left lung, according to the first amended complaint. The removal was to test for cancer.
After two months of medical leave, Eshleman returned to work. Six weeks later, he suffered a severe respiratory infection that lasted several days. His supervisor approved two vacation days to recover. However, on this second day of his return, Patrick Industries fired Eshleman.
According to court documents, Eshleman said he was fired because of performance issues.
However, his latest performance review received nothing but 4.5 and 5 ratings out of a possible five in every category. Confronted with this fact, the superintendent walked back his explanation and said Eshleman was fired because he had not called in sick when he was going through the upper respiratory infection. Eshleman later found out that the reason for his firing was changed for a third time to behavioral issues.
However, Eshleman claims the changing explanation was a way to cover illegal disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He states in court documents he was fired because Patrick Industries “perceived that (Eshleman) suffered from a long-term or chronic medical condition which would affect his attendance in the future, like it had in the immediate past, due to what they perceived as continuing medical issues.”
ADA’s ‘regarded as’ provision
In order for someone to state a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the following criteria must be met:
- The person is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA.
- He or she is otherwise qualified to perform essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer.
- The person has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination.
Regarding the first criteria, a person is considered disabled if they one of the following criteria is met:
- Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities.
- Have a record of such an impairment.
- Are regarded as having such an impairment.
That last criteria is the heart of the case heard by the Third Circuit panel. An individual can state a “regarded as” claim if they establish that they have been subjected to an action prohibited under the American with Disabilities Act because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.
An employer regards a person as disabled when it misinterpret information about an employee’s limitations to conclude that the employee is incapable of performing their job requirements.
The Americans with Disabilities Act includes “regarded as” claims because being perceived as disabled may prove just as disabling to a person as another type of physical or mental impairment.
However, the Americans with Disabilities Act includes limits on “regarded as” claims. Impairments that are transitory and minor are excluded, perceived or real. “Transitory” is defined as “an impairment with an actual or expected duration of six months or less,” according to the act. The term “minor” is not defined.
Based on those definitions, an Eastern Pennsylvania District Court ruled that Eshleman’s situation falls under that exclusion. As a result, it dismissed the lawsuit.
Appeals court’s interpretation of the American’s with Disabilities Act
In its published opinion, the Third Circuit panel concluded that the district’s court decision relied on “the temporal proximity between Eshleman’s medical absences and his termination” when finding that Patrick Industries regarded him as disabled. The lower court even found that Eshleman sufficiently states a “regarded as” claim.
However, the district court also concluded that the trucker’s condition was transitory and minor. The appeal argued against the lower court’s conclusion of “transitory” and “minor.”
The district court backed up its decision by stating Eshleman’s impairment because the duration lasted less than six months. Since it never addressed the “minor” factor, the Third Circuit automatically reversed and remanded the case to consider that aspect.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act defines “transitory,” it does not define “minor.”
The act also requires the defense to show that the impairment is both transitory and minor. Because the district court only evaluated one of two criteria, the appeals court ruled it insufficiently analyzed the claim.