- The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a jury's decision that an employee could not succeed on an American with Disabilities Act (ADA) discrimination claim because she did not have a disability (Benson v. Tyson Foods, Inc. No. 17-40161 (Fifth Cir. May 1, 2018)).
- Vanity Benson alleged that her ankle was injured while operating a forklift as a Tyson Foods employee, breaking several bones and requiring multiple surgeries, including the placement of screws in her foot. She sued Tyson, claiming, among other things, that it fired her because of her disability.
- A jury determined that she did not meet the law's definition of disability and, on appeal, the 5th Circuit upheld the ruling. “Here, the jury had ample evidence that Benson was not disabled. [A doctor] testified about the extent of Benson’s injury, including that her foot had healed correctly and that she required no further treatment. Benson acknowledged that she was able to play basketball and work two jobs that required her to stand on her feet. And Benson admitted to fictionalizing details in the initial account of her foot injury, thus undermining the credibility of her testimony," the court said. "From this evidence, the jury could reasonably conclude that she was not disabled."
While courts previously spent a great deal of time evaluating whether workers' impairments rose to the level of a disability under the ADA, that hasn't been the case since the ADA Amendments Act took effect in 2009.
That law deliberately broadened the ADA's coverage and was specifically designed to shift the focus away from disability inquiries and toward an evaluation of whether accommodations are available and whether discrimination occurred. “Since the ADA was amended effective in 2009, the focus for employers has been on whether certain acts are discriminatory, rather than trying to determine whether an employee has a disability," Nancy Barnes, a partner in the Cleveland, Ohio office of Thompson Hine, told HR Dive via email. Employees do still have to meet a threshold, she noted, but it's now much easier to satisfy.
Importantly, the Tyson opinion came about because Benson wanted a new trial. The standard for granting one is abuse of discretion, Barnes said, where the trial court is given deference. "While it is unusual to see a finding that a plaintiff had no disability, this case appears to have presented a ‘perfect storm’ of facts," she said: there was medical testimony that the condition had healed, factual evidence that the condition was not impacting major life activities and an admission that the plaintiff had exaggerated her account of the injury. "Given that combination of evidence and flawed credibility, the appellate court found no basis for concluding that there was a complete lack of evidence to support the verdict," – the required standard for granting Benson's request, Barnes explained.
The Tyson ruling shows that it's still possible for an employer to succeed in arguing that a worker does not qualify for the law's coverage, but it's likely to be an uphill battle. Experts continue to recommend that employers refrain from trying to make medical judgments and focus instead on whether accommodations are available. It seems unlikely to shake up future litigation either; as Barnes said: "This case demonstrates that employers can prevail when challenging the existence of a disability in certain circumstances, but overall, the focus of a defense will continue to be a demonstration that no discrimination occurred."