Court Decisions Brief
A project of the Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University

Bryson v. Regis Corp.

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
No. 06-5137, 498 F.3d 561
August 16, 2007

(Note: Although this case is largely an Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) case, the relevance to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) becomes clear by the end.)

Facts of the Case

Karen Bryson was employed at a hair salon owned by Regis Corporation. Although she was the store manager, she spent 90 percent of her time cutting hair, requiring her to stand. While at home, Ms. Bryson injured her knee. An orthopedic surgeon recommended physical therapy, but after a few sessions her knee condition worsened and required surgery (scheduled for mid-December of 2003). Ms. Bryson’s supervisor at the hair salon reacted unfavorably to her request for leave. However, Ms. Bryson could not delay the surgery. The day before surgery, Ms. Bryson gave her supervisor and Regis corporate headquarters (“Regis”) a written request for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) from December 16, 2003 until January 1, 2004. Regis approved her request.

Unable to return to work on January 1, however, she requested an extension of her leave under the FMLA. Regis granted her request, and she was expected to return to work no later than March 10, 2004 when the 12 week FMLA leave would be exhausted.1 On March 8, Ms. Bryson’s orthopedic surgeon completed Regis’ release form, required by all employees on FMLA leave before returning to work, which indicated Ms. Bryson was unable to return to her required work duties. The surgeon did not indicate Ms. Bryson’s condition was disabling, and did not suggest she could perform “seated” work. Ms. Bryson, however, indicated on the release form that she was unable to perform all prior duties and requested an accommodation for her “temporary disability”.

Ms. Bryson mailed the release form on March 8. She also left her supervisor a voice message on March 8 about the status of her condition. After not hearing from her supervisor, Ms. Bryson called her senior manager on March 9 and explained her need for accommodation because she could not stand for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. Ms. Bryson also proposed to help train employees, but the senior manager did not think that Regis or the supervisor would accept the proposal.

Regis received the release form on March 15. In a letter dated March 10, the day her FMLA leave expired, headquarters fired Ms. Bryson because she had not been cleared to return to work by her doctor. Ms. Bryson received her termination letter on March 11. She made several phone calls to headquarters, but headquarters never returned her calls.

Issues of the Case

  1. Whether, under the FMLA, Ms. Bryson’s termination was in retaliation for using her FMLA leave.
  2. Whether, under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (“KCRA”), Ms. Bryson had a disability and experienced disability discrimination by Regis.
  3. Whether, under the KCRA, Regis retaliated against Ms. Bryson by terminating her employment after she requested an accommodation.

Arguments & Analysis

1. Retaliation under FMLA

Under the FMLA, Ms. Bryson claimed she experienced retaliation because the facts show there was a causal connection between her taking FMLA leave and her being fired. She argued further that Regis fired her using pretext rather than a legitimate non-discriminatory reason. Regis argued that Ms. Bryson was terminated for legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons, namely that her doctor did not release her as able to return to work. Because the firing took place on March 10, the very day that Ms. Bryson was to return to work, the Court concluded that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find a causal connection between her FMLA leave and her being fired. The Court also found a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the termination was legitimate and non-discriminatory, or a mere pretext. The timing of when Regis learned about Ms. Bryson’s continuing disability, and the role Ms. Bryson’s supervisor and senior manager played in the internal communications leading up to the firing, were important facts that required further development. Therefore, the Court allowed the FMLA-retaliation claim to proceed to a trial by jury.

2. Disability Discrimination under KCRA

Under the KCRA, Ms. Bryson asserted that she suffered disability discrimination because she could no longer work at the hair salon as a manager. Regis denied any disability discrimination against Ms. Bryson, arguing she did not have a disability because her knee condition was temporary and she was not substantially restricted in a major life activity. Thus, Regis argued she was not protected under KCRA.

The Court analyzed the KCRA claim under the ADA because both statutes apply the same standards for employment discrimination. The Court concluded that Ms. Bryson was not a qualified individual with a disability because she was not substantially limited in a major life activity. The fact that Ms. Bryson could not stand or walk as long as she used to prior to her knee condition was insufficient to establish that she was substantially limited in standing or walking. Additionally, the Court concluded Ms. Bryson was not substantially limited her ability to work, even if she was limited from working as a hair stylist.

3. Retaliation under KCRA

Finally, under the KCRA, Ms. Bryson argued that she suffered retaliation because she was terminated after requesting an accommodation to perform “seated” work. Because there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the firing decision was legitimate and non-discriminatory or a mere pretext, the Court allowed the retaliation claim to proceed to a trial by jury.

Rulings

  1. On the FMLA-retaliation claim, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings to determine (a) when Regis decided to terminate Ms. Bryson, (b) on what basis it made that decision, and (c) whether Ms. Bryson's supervisor and senior manager played a role in the decision-making process.
  2. On the disability discrimination claim under the KCRA, the Court found that Ms. Bryson was not substantially limited in a major life activity, and therefore was not a qualified individual with a disability.
  3. On the KCRA retaliation claim, the Court reversed and remanded the claim for further proceedings to determine what role, if any, Ms. Bryson’s supervisor and senior manager played in the termination.

Policy & Practice

Disability Retaliation Claims

Section 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a) of the ADA provides: “No person shall discriminate against any individual because such individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by this chapter [of the ADA] or because such individual made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this chapter.” It would seem logical that this section of the ADA would protect a person without a disability, advocating on behalf of someone with a disability, as well as persons with disabilities, from retaliation. Bryson v. Regis Corp. addresses a slight variation of this protection The First, Third, Seventh, and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals have held that a plaintiff, who claims a disability, may prevail on a retaliation claim even if the plaintiff fails to qualify as an individual with a disability. The Sixth Circuit in Bryson v. Regis Corp. joins these other Circuits.

State Disability Statutes

Many states like Kentucky have enacted their own versions of the ADA that provide at least as much protection as the ADA. Courts generally apply the standards and precedent of the ADA when interpreting claims under these state disability statutes.

Links

Footnotes

  1. For the first two weeks, Ms. Bryson used her paid vacation time in lieu of unpaid FMLA leave. Regis incorrectly included the two week period against her FMLA annual leave. Thus, rather than March 10, 2004, Ms. Bryson should have had until March 24, 2004 of FMLA leave. She did not, however, allege denial of full FMLA leave.

Disclaimer:

These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time.  In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.

Southeast ADA Center

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