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

Wolfe v. Postmaster General

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals
No. 11-12973; 2012 WL 3792091
August 31, 2012

Facts of the Case

For seven years, Plaintiff Strother Wolfe (“Wolfe”) worked as a mechanic for the Postal Service in Birmingham, Alabama. Wolfe has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition that is mitigated through the use of prescription medication. Wolfe's ADHD does not affect his day-to-day life unless he fails to take his medication as prescribed. During the course of his employment, Wolfe had seven disciplinary actions taken against him, largely because he was absent from his work area, or he had unscheduled absences.

In 2003, Wolfe was leaning back in a chair that subsequently broke as a result of this behavior. Wolfe’s supervisor suggested suspending Wolfe for seven days. In challenging this suspension Wolfe informed his supervisor of his ADHD. Due to USPS’ progressive discipline policy - which includes a letter of written warning, seven day suspension, a fourteen day suspension, and then termination - Wolfe was only given a written warning on this occasion. Nevertheless, Wolfe claims that his supervisors created a hostile work environment after he disclosed his ADHD.

On June 18, 2008, Wolfe received further progressive discipline after being absent from his work station eleven days prior. On September 24, 2008 Wolfe filed a complaint of discrimination, which specifically dealt with the notice of termination that he received for poor work performance on June 22, 2008. As a result of Union efforts, Wolfe returned to work with a “time served Suspension” and the complaint was closed on July 8, 2009 with a finding of no discrimination.

On March 25, 2009, Wolfe’s supervisors issued him a second notice of termination due to four unscheduled absences in a ninety-day period. Although he returned to work, Wolfe brought forth, among other things, a disability discrimination claim against his employer under the Rehabilitation Act. Wolfe argued his employer regarded him as being substantially limited in the major life activity of working. Wolfe alleged he was subjected to discriminatory disparate treatment for wrongful termination by his employer. That is, Wolfe argued that he was treated differently because of his disability than other employees who had the same number of unscheduled absences and who were not perceived as having a disability.

Issues of the Case

  1. Whether the plaintiff was regarded as having a disability?
  2. Whether the employer’s termination of the plaintiff was disparate treatment that violated the Rehabilitation Act?

Arguments & Analysis

1. Regarded As

The Rehabilitation Act prohibits the United States Postal Service from discriminating against an “otherwise qualified individual with a disability.” The legal standards under the Rehabilitation Act are the same as the Title I Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards for determining employment discrimination. Thus, in order to establish a case of discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, a person must show: (1) s/he has a disability; (2) s/he is qualified for the position; and (3) s/he was subjected to unlawful discrimination as the result of his or her disability. A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of [the] individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.

The standard for determining whether a person has a disability under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act was expanded when Congress adopted the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which took effect on January 1, 2009. Before implementation of the ADAAA, in order to be regarded as a person with a disability with respect to one’s ability to work, the ADA required that a plaintiff be regarded by others as being unable to work in a broad class of jobs because of the perceived disability. On January 1, 2009, post-ADAAA, a person satisfied the “regarded as” definition of disability with respect to one’s ability to work if they were subject to discrimination 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.

Alleged discrimination before the effective date of the ADAAA

The majority of Wolfe’s claims –which primarily include a hostile work environment that occurred after Wolfe disclosed his disability around 2003 – occurred before the effective date of the ADAAA. The Court determined these claims were governed by pre-ADAAA standards. Wolfe argued that his supervisors regarded him as a person with a disability. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision that Wolfe failed to establish that he was regarded as having a disability, because Wolfe’s ADHD did not affect his performance as a mechanic, and did not limit his ability to work in a broad class of jobs.

Alleged discrimination after the effective date of the ADAAA

The only post-ADAAA claim by Wolfe involved an alleged wrongful termination notice he received on March 25, 2009, after the effective date of the ADAAA. A plaintiff must only demonstrate that the employer regarded him as being impaired, not that the employer believed the impairment prevented the plaintiff from performing a major life activity. The Eleventh Circuit accepted Wolfe’s regarded as argument without discussion, likely because the employer had prior notice that Wolfe had ADHD.

2. Disparate Treatment

In order to show disparate treatment, a plaintiff must demonstrate that his employer treated similarly situated employees outside of his or her protected class more favorably than he or she was treated. The Court found that there was no evidence of disparate treatment because Wolfe did not identify a single person, outside-the-protected-class, who had committed the same workplace violations and was punished less severely.

Rulings

  1. The Eleventh Circuit found that Wolfe was regarded as having a disability at the time of his last claim, applying the ADAAA analysis requiring only that a plaintiff demonstrate that the employer regarded him as having a disability whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.
  2. With respect to the disparate treatment claim, the Eleventh Circuit determined that Wolfe failed to show that his employer treated employees without disabilities more favorably than he was treated for his unexcused absences.

Policy & Practice

In the context of “regarded as” claims and of one’s ability to work, this case is important because it highlights the different analysis used after the passage of the 2008 Amendments Act. A person meets the requirement of “being regarded as having such an impairment” if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to a prohibited action 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. This change likely will reduce a plaintiff’s burden in establishing that he or she meets the definition of disability necessary to receive the protections of the law.

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.

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