Wednesday, August 6, 2014

7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in Disability Discrimination and Failure to Accommodate Claim under the ADA After Employee with Down Syndrome Has Verbal Outburst at Coworker

In a very short opinion affirming a district court's grant of summary judgment in a disability discrimination and failure-to-accommodate case under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that an employee with Down Syndrome, Sean Reeves, could not show that his employer, Jewel, failed to accommodate his down syndrome or discriminated against him on the basis of his disability (Down Syndrome), after he was fired for a verbal outburst whereby he told a coworker, "fuck you, you stupid blonde."

Jewel is a supermarket chain and Reeves worked for Jewel as a bagger from June 1997 until his termination in April 2005.  Reeves has Down Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder which varies in severity, but causes lifelong intellectual disability and developmental delays.  As the 7th Circuit noted, because of his disability, Jewel gave Reeves, "an array of vocational tutoring early in his tenure," and "also instituted supervision policies that applied only to Reeves."  For example, at the end of each day, Reeve's supervisor would complete an evaluation form that either approved or disapproved of Reeve's performance in five job categories.  The form would then be sent to Reeve's parents, per their request.  Reeves was also exempted from collecting shopping carts from the parking lot following an incident where Reeves was found directing customers how to park their cars.

Reeves also, from time-to-time, had trouble complying with Jewel's workplace rules, but was never fired even though on at least one occasion, he engaged in theft of store merchandise, which, under Jewel's policy, is cause for immediate termination.  It was not until Reeves cursed at another coworker on April 11, 2005 that Jewel finally terminated his employment.  Reeves then filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which found that there was reasonable cause to believe both that Jewel discriminated against Reeves because of his disability and that Jewel engaged in a pattern or practice of denying reasonable accommodations to a class of disabled employees.  A Right to Sue letter was eventually issued and Reeves' parents sued Jewel on his behalf.

The district court dismissed Reeves' failure-to-accommodate claim finding it was waived by not having been properly plead in the Complaint but the 7th Circuit found that Reeves did, in his Complaint, allege a claim for discrimination under the ADA and that ADA discrimination includes a failure to accommodate under 42 U.S.C. sec. 12112(b)(5)(A).  The 7th Circuit also held Reeves, "pled a number of facts relevant to his failure-to-accommodate claim in his complaint.  This was sufficient to preserve the argument."  However, finding that Reeves did not waive this claim, the 7th Circuit still ultimately held that this claim still failed on the merits.

The 7th Circuit held that Reeves' mother, Diana Reeves, did not make "reasonable efforts to help the other party decide what reasonable accommodations are necessary."  The 7th Circuit further held that there was never discussion of accommodations to prevent Reeves from cursing in front of customers.  Thus, summary judgment was affirmed.

The case is Sean Reeves, by his parents and next friends, John and Diana Reeves v. Jewel Food Stores, Inc., No. 13-3782 (7th Circuit, July 17, 2014)

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