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Aubrey v. Koppes.

No. 19-1153. D.Colo. Judge Ebel. Americans with Disabilities Act—Reasonable Accommodation—Discrimination—Retaliation.

September 14, 2020

Plaintiff was an employee with the Weld County Clerk and Recorder’s Office (County) from 2012 until 2015 and was promoted throughout her employment. In 2014, plaintiff became unable to work for a time due to posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome (PRES). Plaintiff was placed on leave, and while she was still recovering, the County issued a notice of pre-termination meeting. The notice required plaintiff to attend the meeting the following morning and stated that the County could not accommodate her restrictions from her medical problems. Plaintiff was not notified before the pre-termination meeting that she needed to bring a fitness-for-duty certification, nor was she given any time after the meeting to try to obtain that certification.

Plaintiff attended the meeting and informed the County that she was recovering faster than anticipated. She requested additional time to see her neurologist, for retraining, and/or for possible reassignment to another position. Several days later, the County terminated her employment. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff’s physicians cleared her to return to work. Plaintiff obtained a right to sue letter and filed three claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): (1) failure to accommodate disability, (2) discrimination due to disability, and (3) termination in retaliation for asking for an accommodation. The County moved for summary judgment, and the court granted its motion as to all claims.

Plaintiff argued on appeal that the County discriminated against her on the basis of disability by not making a reasonable accommodation for her known disability and, instead, terminating her. To establish a prima facie failure-to-accommodate claim, plaintiff had to show that (1) she was disabled, (2) she was otherwise qualified for the position, (3) she requested a plausibly reasonable accommodation, and (4) the County refused to accommodate her disability. It is undisputed that plaintiff was disabled for purposes of the ADA, was qualified for her position before she began suffering from PRES, and although aware of her need for an accommodation, the County did not provide any.

As to plaintiff’s accommodation request, when a disabled employee seeks an accommodation that will enable the employee to continue performing the essential job functions, the ADA contemplates a collaborative interactive process between the employee and employer, undertaken in good faith, with the goal of identifying the employee’s precise limitations and attempting to find a reasonable accommodation for those limitations. Here, plaintiff sufficiently established three plausibly reasonable accommodations that a jury could find would have permitted her to return to performing the essential functions of her job. But from the transcript of the pre-termination hearing, a jury could find that County officials made no effort to explore whether it could make accommodations to allow plaintiff to return to work at that time. Considering this, a reasonable jury could further find that the County failed to meet its obligation of engaging with plaintiff in a good faith interactive process.

Accordingly, plaintiff established a prima facie failure-to-accommodate claim.
Plaintiff also argued that the County discriminated against her on the basis of her disability when it terminated her employment. To recover on this claim, plaintiff had to show that the County’s justification for terminating her was a pretext for disability discrimination. Here, a jury could find that the reasons the County gave for terminating plaintiff in its termination letter and through County officials’ deposition testimony were unworthy of belief because they were inaccurate or false. A jury could further infer that the County acted with discriminatory animus based on how it conducted the pre-termination hearing. Plaintiff thus asserted sufficient evidence to create a triable question as to pretext.

Lastly, plaintiff argued that the County retaliated against her by firing her because she asked the County to accommodate her disability. The County contended it terminated plaintiff for a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason—because she could not perform the essential functions of her position, and the County could no longer wait for her to recover. While there are reasons for disbelieving the County’s asserted termination reasons, there is no record evidence to support a jury finding that the real reason for the County’s termination was plaintiff’s accommodation request. Accordingly, the district court properly granted summary judgment to the County on the retaliation claim.

The summary judgment on the retaliation claim was affirmed. The summary judgments on the failure to accommodate and discrimination claims were reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

Related Topics

Americans with Disabilities Act Reasonable Accommodation Discrimination Retaliation

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