This blog previously noted that the Sixth Circuit (the federal circuit that includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee) would likely change its standard for analyzing claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from a stricter standard to a less demanding standard that favors employees. Americans with Disabilities Act: The Times They are (likely) a Changin.’
The first step towards making that change was recently taken by the Sixth Circuit when it granted a certain procedural hearing in June (PDF).
Specifically, in Lewis v Humboldt Acquisition Corp., Susan Lewis lost her ADA claim at the trial level. On appeal, she argued that the trial court should have instructed the jury that her disability need only be a “motivating factor” for her termination rather than the “sole factor” for the adverse employment action. But this “motivating factor” standard is not the law in the Sixth Circuit.
Instead, the current law in the Sixth Circuit requires that a plaintiff must prove that the plaintiff’s disability was the “sole reason” for the adverse employment action (see the 1996 court opinion Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp). Based on Sixth Circuit appellate procedure, this prior opinion must be followed unless reversed. That reversal, however, could only occur through a procedural hearing referred to as an “en banc” hearing.
While such a hearing is the exception, and a rare one at that, the en banc rehearing was granted, which means all the Sixth Circuit appellate judges will hear the case and decide if its prior precedent (Monette) should be reversed. It is anticipated that this will happen.
If that happens, the Sixth Circuit’s current “sole reason” standard will be overruled and likely be replaced with the “motivating factor” standard. Under the “motivating factor” standard a plaintiff is only required to prove his or her disability was a motivating factor of the adverse employment action rather than the “sole reason” in order to make successfully state an ADA claim.
The Take Away
If (when) the Sixth Circuit reverses its “sole reason” standard in favor of the “motivating factor” standard for making an ADA claim, employers will certainly face a more employee-friendly litigation landscape in the Sixth Circuit. This is especially true because employers will have less opportunity to rely on disposing of a case through a summary judgment motion under the more lenient standard. But it will also mean that the Sixth Circuit would be in the majority (at least 8 other federal circuits follow the “motivating factor” standard) rather than in the minority.
It is also worth noting that employers in Michigan have essentially operated under the less demanding “motivating factor” standard when it comes to Michigan’s state law equivalent to the ADA. That state law being the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PDCRA). Under the PDCRA, Michigan courts have generally required an individual to show that unlawful discrimination was at least a “motivating factor” in the employer’s actions. Hazle v. Ford Motor Co., 464 Mich. 456, 462 (2001).
We will continue to monitor this case, but please subscribe to this Blog for updates on the anticipated changes discussed above.