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Dansie v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

No. 20-4054. 8/2/2022. D.Utah. Judge Carson. Americans with Disabilities Act—Interactive Reasonable Accommodation Process—Family Medical Leave Act—Request for Supplemental Jury Instructions.

August 2, 2022

Defendant schedules conductors using an on-call system and requires they report for duty within two hours. In addition to federally mandated rest periods, conductors receive paid vacation leave and personal leave under a union agreement. The union agreement also provides conductors with reasonable unpaid personal “layoffs,” where an on-call conductor schedules as unavailable yet is called for duty.

Plaintiff has lived and worked with an HIV-positive diagnosis for 20 years. He has AIDS and testicular cancer that is in remission. Because of these medical conditions, plaintiff requires ongoing treatment. He began employment with defendant in 2004 but was terminated for an alleged safety violation in 2014. This termination was overturned by an appeals board. Plaintiff returned to work in 2016 but had temporarily lost eligibility for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave.

Plaintiff then repeatedly sought to use paid leave to cover his illness or medical appointments. Defendant denied the requests. Plaintiff then requested what he believed was a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). His physician noted that defendant’s unclear scheduling and attendance requirements prevented him from providing an estimate of days off with certainty, but roughly estimated that five additional days per month were required. Plaintiff asserts he was then informed that the accommodation request was approved. Defendant disputes this, and internal correspondence showed that defendant believed the five additional days off was too much time.

Plaintiff testified that before termination, he asked for a dialogue with his manager and a representative of the disability management office. No one from management intervened, however, and plaintiff’s supervisors charged him with attendance policy violations three times. Although plaintiff received a letter informing him that defendant approved him for FMLA leave, defendant terminated his employment one month later.

Plaintiff brought suit, alleging violations of the ADA and FMLA. The district court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the ADA claim, concluding that plaintiff did not request a plausibly reasonable accommodation and failed to satisfy his prima facie burden. The parties then went to trial on the FMLA claim, and the jury returned a verdict in defendant’s favor. Prior to the verdict, the district court declined to provide supplemental jury instructions.

Under the ADA, employers and employees are required to engage in an interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation can be made. The employee must first provide notice of disability and any resulting limitations. The Tenth Circuit concluded that plaintiff met this requirement. Further, based on the record evidence, the Tenth Circuit determined that a reasonable jury could find that defendant failed to engage in the interactive process. Communication broke down when defendant refused to clarify its definition of “full-time” employment. Next, plaintiff presented three plausibly reasonable accommodations—allowing more time off work, allowing the use of paid leave days until FMLA qualification, or reassignment to an available regular-schedule position. This evidence was sufficient for the failure to accommodate claim to survive summary judgment.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to give supplemental jury instructions regarding FMLA and denying plaintiff’s motion for a new trial. The general instructions were sufficient for the jury to determine whether defendant had shown that it would have discharged plaintiff regardless of his request for FMLA leave. The request for an instruction as to whether plaintiff was entitled to FMLA leave was therefore not central to the case.

The district court’s grant of summary judgment on the ADA claim was reversed, and the decision to decline to give supplemental jury instructions on the FMLA claim was affirmed.

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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