Can an employer be found liable for ADA employment discrimination without actual knowledge of the employee’s disability?
In 1985, Joseph Howard (“Howard”) began working for STERIS, a corporation that makes surgical tables, cabinets, and lights in Montgomery, Alabama. Four years later, Howard became an assembler, which involved building heating units on medical cabinets, which hospitals use to store warm towels and blankets.
Howard experienced daytime drowsiness for most of his adult life. During high school, Howard claims to have visited Dr. James Capel in order to seek treatment for his daytime drowsiness. According to Howard, Dr. Capel told him that he might have narcolepsy and provided him with caffeine pills; however, Dr. Capel had no documentation of this incident.
Nearly thirty years later Howard, once again, sought treatment for his daytime drowsiness from Dr. Capel. Howard asked Dr. Carpenter to conduct a sleep study. The preliminary examination revealed that Howard had heart and thyroid problems. As a result of these findings, Dr. Carpenter diagnosed Howard with Graves' Disease, a condition caused by an overactive thyroid. In treating Howard’s Graves’ Disease, Dr. Carpenter neither addressed nor treated Howard’s daytime drowsiness.
Howard claimed that he was embarrassed to reveal his belief that he had narcolepsy to his supervisors at STERIS. Yet Howard would often fall asleep at company meetings that were attended by these very same supervisors. Howard also made statements to his supervisors and co-workers about his daytime drowsiness. On one occasion when Howard fell asleep during an important meeting and suddenly awoke, Howard said “…I've got a problem, y'all will just have to excuse me, I can't help what I do.” Howard never requested any accommodations for his Graves' Disease, or what he believed to be narcolepsy.
The Director of Operations at the Montgomery facility was Malcolm McBride (“McBride”). McBride was the final decision-maker on all matters related to employee discipline. Also in a position to make decisions on employee misconduct was Ken Thomas (“Thomas”) who was the Senior Human Resources Manager. During day-to-day operations, however, Howard reported to his direct supervisor, Jimmy Williams (“Williams”). On June 11, 2009, Supervisor Randy Bridges (“Bridges”) witnessed Howard sleeping at his workstation, and contacted Williams. Howard told Williams that he was taking a thyroid medication that made him “feel bad” right after taking it. During this conversation, Williams admitted to seeing a bag of medicine from CVS at Howard’s workstation.
Later that afternoon, Howard met with Williams and Thomas. The meeting began with Williams describing how Bridges witnessed Howard sleeping on the job, and the meeting ended with Thomas notifying Howard that he was suspended, “in keeping with company policy.” The policy referenced by Thomas was located in an employee handbook, which specifically listed “sleeping on the job” as employee misconduct that could result in termination.
After the meeting, Williams escorted Howard to the parking lot. During the walk, Williams asked Howard if he had a sleeping disorder, trouble staying awake, or if maybe he had seen a doctor about whether he had narcolepsy. Howard replied that he had not seen a doctor about his sleepiness, though his coworkers had urged him to do so for some time.
Based on Howard's misconduct and the company's policy and history of terminating employees found sleeping at their workstations, McBride later fired Howard. When he made the decision, he did not know that Howard suffered from narcolepsy. But he did know that Howard was taking some sort of medication around the time he was found sleeping at his workstation.
Howard claimed that STERIS violated the ADA (1) when it fired him after two supervisors allegedly saw him sleeping at his workstation; (2) by not offering him a reasonable accommodation for his disability; and (3) by retaliating against him for complaining about his treatment. The Court addressed each of these three claims.
Howard bears the burden of establishing his disability discrimination case. This means that Howard must prove that: (1) he has a disability; (2) he is a qualified individual; and (3) he was subjected to unlawful discrimination because of his disability. Therefore, the Court performed the following analysis.
First, the Court considered whether Howard was a person with a disability. A person has a disability if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), “sleeping” is included as a major life activity. Accordingly, the Court found that Howard met the burden of demonstrating that he has a disability because his pulmonologist and sleep specialist diagnosed him with obstructive sleep apnea, which interfered with Howard's ability to sleep. Dr. Casals also indicated that Howard’s Graves’ Disease made it difficult for him to sleep.
Second, the Court determined whether Howard was a “qualified individual with a disability”. A “qualified individual with a disability” is a person who can perform the “essential functions” of the job, “with or without reasonable accommodation.” Without an extensive analysis, the court determined that Howard was a qualified individual with a disability.
Third, the Court analyzed whether unlawful discrimination had taken place. An employer unlawfully discriminates against a qualified individual with a disability by taking adverse action against him because of the disability. To this third and final point of the analysis, the Court reasoned that the employee must show that the employer knew of the employee’s disability at the time of the alleged adverse employment action in order to prove that the employer discriminated against the employee because of his disability. In order to bolster this point, the Court relied on two Eleventh Circuit cases, Morisky v. Broward County and Cordoba v. Dillard's, Inc., which according to the District Court “make clear that an employee has to tell his employer about his specific disability before the ADA triggers an obligation to accommodate him or refrain from firing him because of the disability.”
The District Court further noted that this rule of law makes good sense because most employers would lack the ability and/or capacity to make the necessary medical findings to determine whether an employee does or does not have a disability. Therefore, the District Court declared that the burden should be on the party with relatively more knowledge about the potential disability (i.e., the employee). Because the Court placed this burden on Howard as the employee, it concluded that Howard needed to produce evidence that a company decision-maker had actual knowledge of his alleged disability.
While Howard provided an assortment of evidence to show that company decision makers had actual knowledge of his disability, the Court found the most persuasive evidence Howard offered was that: he told his supervisors that he had Graves' Disease. In response to this evidence, the District Court noted that “the ADA only requires employers to account for known disabilities when making employment decisions, so just because an employer knows an employee has some sort of impairment doesn't mean that the employer automatically knows the impairment substantially limits a major life activity of that employee.”
Because Howard failed to show that STERIS had actual knowledge of his disability, the Court found that no reasonable juror could infer that STERIS discriminated against him based on his disability.
In the context of “actual discrimination” cases, this case demonstrates to prospective plaintiff-employees who wish to bring a disability discrimination claim that an employer must have actual knowledge of an employee’s disability when the adverse employment action was made in order for a Court to find that the employer discriminated against the plaintiff-employee because of his or her disability. The Eleventh Circuit is clear on this point: if the employer does not have actual knowledge of the employee’s disability, then it is impossible for the employer to make an adverse employment decision because of the employee’s disability, or fail to accommodate the employee’s (unknown) disability.