Sixth Circuit Finds that Employer Failed to Prove that Full-Time Work Was an Essential Job Function
Posted on Aug. 23 2018.
In Hostettler v. The College of Wooster, 895 F.3d 844 (6th Cir. 2018), the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals determined, among other things, that the district court had used the wrong standard in determining whether an ADA plaintiff, who had been terminated, had pleaded a prima facie case and whether full-time work was an essential function of the job, when it granted summary judgment to the defendant.
Heidi Hostettler was pregnant at the time she was hired as an HR generalist in Wooster’s human resources department in the summer of 2013. She disclosed the pregnancy during the hiring process and was promised 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave. She began her maternity leave in February 2014 and took her full 12 weeks but because she was diagnosed with “severe postpartum depression and separation anxiety” after the birth and was prescribed an anti-depressant, her doctor only cleared her to return at a reduced schedule for the “foreseeable future.” After some negotiation, she returned to a five half-day a week schedule in late May, working from 8:00 a.m. to noon. Soon after she returned, her manager began pressuring her to return to full-time. Hostettler proposed in early July that she extend her hours from 8:00-2:00 with the idea of transitioning back to full-time, but her manager seemed unwilling to find a solution and Hostettler was fired in mid-July.
Hostettler sued under the ADA, FMLA, Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination and corresponding Ohio laws. The district court granted Wooster’s motion for summary judgment on all Hostettler’s claims, essentially based on one legal conclusion: that full-time work was an essential function of Hostettler ‘s position.
In depositions, Hostettler and another generalist testified that, even with the reduced work schedule, Hostettler was able to get all of her tasks done and her manager admitted that Hostettler “never failed to perform any responsibility or finish any assignment in a timely manner.” In fact, shortly before Hostettler was fired her manager gave her a performance evaluation that had no negative feedback and, in fact, stated that “Heidi is a great colleague and a welcome addition to the HR team!” Her manager testified that the department was short-handed without Hostettler’s physical presence but she was unable to identify any specific responsibilities or assignments that were not completed and there was also a dispute whether the manager notified Hostettler that she wanted her back on a full-time schedule.
The Sixth Circuit began its analysis by noting that the district court had used the wrong standard to determine whether or not Hostettler was disabled. The district court used the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting test in its analysis because it apparently believed there was no direct evidence of discrimination. The Sixth Circuit however, said that “[c]laims that allege a failure to accommodate ‘necessarily involve direct evidence’ . . . [and] [t]ermination for no reason other than alleged problems with an already-in-place accommodation should involve the same direct standard of proof.” Because Wooster admitted that Hostettler was fired solely because it could no longer accommodate her disability, the court said no inferences were necessary. Under that direct-evidence test, Hostettler was required to show that 1) she was an individual with a disability, and 2) that she is otherwise qualified for the job either with or without an accommodation, or with an alleged “essential” job requirement eliminated. The court first determined that she was disabled, based on, among other things, the fact that her OB/GYN believed that Hostettler “had one of the worst cases of separation anxiety” that he had ever seen; that she required prescription antidepressants; and that a former coworker stated that her conditions “limited her physically, mentally, and emotionally” and “caused her to suffer from panic attacks, difficulty breathing, and limited ability to communicate, focus, and make decisions.”
After determining that Hostettler was disabled, the court moved on to analyzing whether there was a genuine issue of material fact about whether Hostettler was otherwise qualified, with or without accommodation, to perform her HR generalist position. The college claimed that full-time, in-office attendance was an essential function of the job but the appeals court held that the evidence was in dispute on that point because both Hostettler and a colleague testified that she carried out her duties, while the college’s witness could not point to specific unfinished work. It also stated that “[a]n employer must tie time-and-presence requirements to some other job requirement” and that “full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says that it is.” The panel noted that if it that was not the case “employers could refuse any accommodation that left an employee at work for fewer than 40 hours per week. That could mean denying leave for doctor’s appointments, dialysis, therapy, or anything else that requires time away from work. Aside from being antithetical to the purpose of the ADA, it also would allow employers to negate the regulation that reasonable accommodations include leave or telework. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(2)(ii).”
The panel also held that there was a dispute about whether Wooster engaged in an interactive process to accommodate Hostettler before firing her since there was conflicting testimony about whether the college had actually offered an accommodation around the time she was fired.
Finally, the panel also remanded the Title VII and FMLA claims, because it determined that under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting test, the school’s alleged reliance on its now-debunked claim that full-time in-person attendance was an essential part of the job, provided Hostettler sufficient evidence of pretext to reach a jury. It also held, as to the FMLA claim that despite the fact that Hostettler was not qualified under the FMLA because she had not worked a full 12 months, the district court “failed to analyze whether equitable estoppel should foreclose” the college from denying coverage.
This decision should provide clarity on how lower courts are to analyze failure to accommodate claims under the ADA.