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Cline v. Clinical Perfusion Systems, Inc.

No. 22-5107. 2/9/2024. N.D.Okla. Judge Ebel. Employment Termination—Disability Discrimination—Age Discrimination—Plausible Allegations.

February 9, 2024

Cline is a perfusionist who was hired by Clinical Perfusion Systems, Inc. (CPS) in 2017. When Cline was hired, he had 25 years of experience, and during his tenure at CPS he was described as an exemplary employee. In March 2021, Cline suffered a medical emergency and lost consciousness while stopped at a traffic light. This incident led to a months-long stay in a hospital intensive care unit (ICU), where Cline was on a ventilator and feeding tube, and was heavily sedated. In May 2021, CPS terminated Cline’s employment, allegedly falsely attributing its decision to CPS’s financial condition. Cline was 61 years old at that time. Cline was discharged to his home in June 2021, and his attending physician cleared him to return to work without restriction on July 28, 2021. Soon thereafter, Cline asked CPS to reinstate him, either at his old position or “a lesser position,” but CPS declined. Cline subsequently obtained a Notice of Right to Sue from the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights Enforcement. He then brought disability discrimination claims against CPS under the Rehabilitation Act, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act (OADA), and age discrimination claims under the OADA. The district court dismissed his complaint with prejudice.

On appeal, Cline argued that the district court erred in dismissing his disability discrimination claims. To establish a disability discrimination claim under the Rehabilitation Act (which uses the same substantive framework for liability as the ACA and OADA), a plaintiff must plausibly allege that they can perform the essential job functions in spite of the disability or could perform those functions with the employer’s reasonable accommodation. As to the latter allegation, the Tenth Circuit held in Hwang v. Kansas State University, 753 F.3d 1159, 1162 (10th Cir. 2014), that a leave of absence exceeding six months is per se unreasonable. Here, the parties agreed that Cline could not perform his job functions while sedated in the ICU, so he had to plausibly allege that he could perform the job functions with an accommodation of leave time during his recovery. While Cline alleged that such an accommodation was available, he failed to support this by making a factual allegation as to a duration of leave that would have constituted a reasonable and sufficient period of time. Therefore, the district court properly granted CPS’s motion to dismiss with respect to Cline’s disability discrimination claims under the Rehabilitation Act, ACA, and OADA.

Cline also argued that the district court erred in dismissing his age discrimination claim. To establish an age discrimination claim under the OADA, a plaintiff must plausibly allege that age was a but-for cause of his termination. Here, Cline alleged alternatively that (1) his age was “the sole factor, the primary factor, the determinative or determining factor, or a significant motivating factor” in CPS’s decision to terminate him; and (2) CPS gave a false reason for his termination and that he was replaced with two younger, less qualified employees. These allegations sufficiently allege an alternative claim that age was a but-for cause of Cline’s termination. Accordingly, the district court erred by concluding that Cline did not demonstrate a causal connection between his age and his termination and by dismissing Cline’s age discrimination claim under the OADA.

The dismissal of Cline’s disability discrimination claims was affirmed. The dismissal of Cline’s age discrimination claims was 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.

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