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

Milton v. Nicholson

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
No. 07-20201, 2007 WL 2695625
September 11, 2007

Facts of the Case

Ms. Carolyn Milton, who has depression, received disability benefits for fourteen years under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act ("FECA"), which is administered by the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs ("OWCP") within the Department of Labor. Ms. Milton sought vocational rehabilitation services to support her return to the workforce. Instructed by the Department of Labor to find employment, she applied for a position as a program support clerk with the Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA"). During her interview, she voluntarily disclosed her disability. She was offered the position, but before starting work, she was asked to provide the VA with documents from OWCP indicating she had fully recovered from her disability, and that the support clerk position was suitable full time employment for her.

Ms. Milton's rehabilitation counselor sent a letter to the VA stating she had been released to perform the job at the VA, but not whether she had recovered from depression or whether the position was suitable. A VA official contacted the OWCP inquiring whether she was suitable for the job. Someone from OWCP told the official that the counselor never should have sent the letter that released her to perform the job because the counselor had no authority to act on behalf of OWCP with respect to employment determinations. This official further indicated that because Ms. Milton was under medical care and receiving workers' compensation, the Department of Labor could not provide a letter stating she was suitable for the clerk position. Subsequently the VA withdrew its offer of employment to Ms. Milton.

Issues of the Case

  1. Whether the VA's withdrawal of its job offer to Ms. Milton was due to her disability and therefore in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; and whether the VA had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for withdrawing the job offer.

Arguments & Analysis

1. Ms. Milton argued that the VA withdrew its job offer on the basis of her depression in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, and that the VA failed to demonstrate "a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for doing so.

The VA argued that Ms. Milton failed to make out a prima facie case of discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act and, alternately, that Ms. Milton's "fail[ure] to obtain a job suitability letter according to OWCP procedures" was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for withdrawing the job offer. Ms. Milton further argued that the VA's stated reason was a pretext (i.e., false or an excuse), because the job offer was withdrawn due to her disability.

2. Employment discrimination claims filed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (such as against the federal government, federal contractors, and recipients of federal funding) apply the same standards as ADA employment claims.

Applying the standard that "[i]t is sufficient if the defendant's [purported nondiscriminatory reason] raises a genuine issue of fact as to whether [the defendant] discriminated against the plaintiff," the court concluded that failure to obtain the required letter met that standard. Rather than intentional discrimination or pretext, the court found that the VA may have misinterpreted regulations regarding the suitability letter, which did not support her claim that the offer was withdrawn because of her disability.

Rulings

Assuming Ms. Milton could establish a prima facie case of discrimination for the purpose of addressing the reason for withdrawing the job offer, the court concluded that the VA successfully provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision and Ms. Milton was unable to show the reason was pretext.

Policy & Practice

Employment discrimination claims filed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act apply the same standards as ADA employment claims.

Specifically, Section 504 provides that the "standards used to determine whether this section has been violated in a complaint alleging employment discrimination under this section shall be the standards applied under title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990." Therefore, when courts interpret claims of employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, they rely upon and create precedent for ADA employment discrimination cases.

It is not clear that the federal agencies involved in this case engaged in discrimination on the basis of disability, and yet the net result was the plaintiff did not have a job. The court suggests that the agencies mishandled the matter of the suitability letter. As such, a plaintiff may benefit from using the available administrative remedies for grievances before taking legal action.

Links

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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