In Wrongful Termination Case, Court Employs Burden Shifting Framework Where No Direct Evidence of Discrimination Exists

A plaintiff employee with no direct evidence of disability discrimination must establish a prima facie case of wrongful termination. If he succeeds, the defendant employer is required to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination. The burden then shifts back to plaintiff to show that the reason offered was merely a pretext for discrimination. The United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia recently employed this burden shifting framework in Ruggles v. Virginia Linen Service, Inc. and granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

Timothy Ruggles was a route salesman for Virginia Linen Service and New System Linen Service. His duties included bringing extra linens to clients who had run out of linens before their scheduled delivery date. The extra linens rarely weighed more than 25 pounds. Ruggles also acted as a substitute driver for ill or vacationing employees, although he contended that substitute driving or “running a route” was not a primary function of his position. Running a route required him to make new deliveries of linens and pick up bags of soiled linens from customers. Occasionally, the bags of soiled linens weighed up to 100 pounds. When running a route, Ruggles and other employees often separated the heaviest bags of soiled linens into smaller bags to reduce the weight and make the bags easier to lift.

Ruggles suffered a back injury that was not related to his work. As a result, his doctor ultimately placed him on restrictions that prevented him from lifting more than 10 pounds for four weeks. Later, an orthopedic specialist permanently restricted laundry.jpgRuggles from lifting more than 50 pounds and/or continuous lifting of more than 25 pounds. Defendants offered Ruggles a sales position that would not require heavy lifting, but Ruggles rejected the offer. Defendants eventually terminated him based on the permanent restrictions the orthopedic specialist put in place.

Ruggles contends that he could have continued performing his job without assistance and that he always met or exceeded his job requirements. He filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC alleging that he was offered a demotion and discharged because he was regarded as having a disability.

In the district court, defendants moved for summary judgment. The court noted that Ruggles had not submitted any direct evidence of discrimination. Therefore, to survive a Motion for Summary Judgment, Ruggles was required to establish a circumstantial case under a burden shifting framework that the United States Supreme Court set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. According to the framework, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of wrongful termination, then the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a nondiscriminatory reason for the termination. If successful, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the reason offered was only a pretext for discrimination.

To establish a prima facie case of wrongful discharge under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a plaintiff must show that (1) he is within the ADA’s protected class; (2) he was discharged; (3) at the time of his discharge he was performing his job at a level that met his employer’s legitimate expectations; and (4) his discharge occurred under circumstances that raise a reasonable inference of unlawful discrimination. To be within the protected class, a plaintiff must be disabled within the meaning of the ADA, i.e. he must either have an impairment that limits a major life activity, have a record of an impairment or be regarded as having an impairment. Ruggles alleged that he was in the protected class because his employer regarded him as having an impairment.

Defendants asserted that Ruggles could not establish that they regarded him as having a disability because they were merely honoring the restrictions that Ruggles’ medical specialist had imposed. Ruggles argued that he could have continued to fulfill his duties by separating soiled linens into smaller, lighter bags as he had done prior to his injury or by using a hand cart. The court found that defendants’ belief that Ruggles could no longer perform a job that required lifting in excess of his capabilities did not necessarily mean than defendants regarded Ruggles as disabled. However, evidence did exist that the lifting restrictions would not prevent Ruggles from doing his job. Although it was a close case, the court ultimately held that Ruggles had presented sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of wrongful discharge such that discrimination could be presumed.

To overcome the presumption, defendants must show that they acted based on a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason. Here, defendants contended that they terminated Ruggles due to his lifting restrictions because they believed the restrictions would preclude him from performing his duties. Defendants presented evidence that Ruggles’ position required him to act as a substitute driver and run routes for 11 full weeks each year and that running routes would require lifting more than 50 pounds. Evidence showed that an employee with Ruggles’ lifting restrictions would not be able to lift bags weighing more than 50 pounds out of storage containers before breaking them down into lighter loads, and that even if it could be done, breaking down the bags would add significant time to each stop and be unpractical. Defendants also submitted evidence that most customer sites would not accommodate a hand cart. Based on this evidence, the court held that defendants presented a legitimate non-discriminatory reason to terminate Ruggles’ employment.

The burden then shifted back to Ruggles to show that the reason given was a mere pretext. Ruggles provided evidence that another employee also tried to limit the weight he lifted and had broken down bags of linens over 50 pounds, but that same employee had not run a route in two years. When defendants asked Ruggles whether he could run a route, Ruggles stated only that it was not a primary function of his position. The court held that Ruggles failed to present evidence that defendants’ stated reason for termination was a pretext. Accordingly, Ruggles had not met his burden and the court granted defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment.

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