E-Alert Case Updates
Delaware Federal Court Examines the McDonnell Douglas Burden-Shifting Framework in Disability Discrimination Cases
Jennifer Monaco v. Limestone Veterinary Hospital
Jennifer Monaco v. Limestone Veterinary Hospital involved a lawsuit filed by a fired employee against her former employer alleging employment discrimination by reason of disability and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12111, et seq. The former employer filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that the fired employee was unable to establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination, as required under the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Based on the evidence in the record, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that no reasonable trier of fact could find that that employee was fired because of her disability and, therefore, that the employee could not prove the third element of a prima facie case of employment discrimination. Thus, Judge Richard G. Andrews granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.
By way of factual background, Plaintiff Jennifer Monaco (“Plaintiff” or “Monaco”), who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), was employed by Defendant Limestone Veterinary Hospital (“Defendant” or “Limestone”) as a veterinary technician from November 25, 2009 through October 20, 2011. Dr. Martha Williams (“Dr. Williams”), Limestone's owner and principal veterinarian, was Monaco's direct supervisor. Monaco's job duties included daily interaction with clients and their pets.
Monaco's work schedule was modified several times after she submitted doctors' notes related to her PTSD. On July 15, 2011, Monaco requested that she work no more than seven (7) hours per day, and she provided a note from her therapist to support the request. Dr. Williams approved the request, and Monaco's work schedule was changed accordingly. On July 28, 2011, Monaco submitted a new note from her therapist that stated that Monaco should continue to work six (6) to seven (7) hours per day, and Dr. Williams approved the request. Monaco's therapist cleared her to return to a full-time schedule, effective September 13, 2011, and Monaco returned to a full-time schedule at that time. After her return to a full-time schedule, Monaco asked if she could take two (2)-hour lunch breaks so she could go home and walk her dog, and the request was approved.
During her last ten (10) months of employment, Monaco had forty-four (44) absences (many of them for illness or injury) and, in her last month of employment, she had at least seven (7) absences. On October 10, 2011, Monaco called Limestone during her lunch break and stated that she would not be back for the rest of her shift. On October 11, 2011, Monaco texted that she was "out sick.'' On October 13, 2011, Monaco called in during her lunch break and said that she had difficulty returning and was ultimately told that there had been cancellations so there was no need to return. On October 17 and 18, 2011, Monaco texted that she was "out."
On October 20, 2011, Monaco planned to take an extended lunch break. Before leaving, Monaco asked Erin Carter (“Carter”), who was the head Limestone technician and Monaco's nursing supervisor, whether she needed to return for the second half of her shift. Carter replied that Monaco needed to return to finish the scheduled shift as she was needed to cover patient rooms while the nurses attended a suture lab being held that afternoon. Monaco left for lunch at 1:00 p.m. and at approximately 2:30 p.m., she called and spoke with office manager Diane Henry Dussell (“Dussell”) and told Dussell that she had "run into this guy'' who had offered to help her with her finances. Monaco explained that she did not think she would "be able to make it back" to work by 4 p.m. Dussell reminded Monaco that there was a suture lab scheduled for that afternoon, and Monaco replied that she did not need the practice and was not going to return because something personal had come up. According to Monaco, Dussell indicated that she would tell Dr. Williams and hung up. After Dr. Williams spoke to Dussell, and Monaco failed to return to work, Dr. Williams made the decision to terminate Monaco's employment effective immediately.
On July 3, 2013, Monaco filed a lawsuit against Limestone in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware alleging employment discrimination by reason of disability and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12111, et seq. Limestone subsequently moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Monaco could not establish the required prima facie case of disability discrimination or retaliation.
The Court began its analysis by noting that a plaintiff may prove disability discrimination either by direct evidence as set forth in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 244-46 (1989), or indirectly through the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). The Court found that Monaco was required to proceed under the burden-shifting framework because she “did not present direct evidence of discrimination.” See Matczak v. Frankford Candy & Chocolate Co., 136 F.3d 933, 938 (3d Cir. 1997).
The Court explained that under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, Monaco must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination by demonstrating that: (1) she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (2) she was otherwise qualified for the job, and (3) she was subjected to an adverse employment action because of her disability. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802; Turner v. Hershey Chocolate, 440 F.3d 604, 611 (3d Cir. 2006). If Monaco succeeded in establishing her prima facie case, the burden would shift to Limestone to proffer "legitimate non-discriminatory'' reasons for its actions. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142 (2000). If Limestone met that burden, the burden again would shift to Monaco to demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the employer's rationale was pretextual. Id. at 142-43. To do this, Monaco would be required to "point to some evidence, direct or circumstantial, from which a factfinder could reasonably either (1) disbelieve the employer's articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer's action." Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 764 (3d Cir. 1994).
The Court further explained that, to avoid summary judgment, “the plaintiffs evidence rebutting the employer's proffered legitimate reasons must allow a factfinder reasonably to infer that each of the employer's proffered non-discriminatory reasons was either a post hoc fabrication or otherwise did not actually motivate the employment action (that is, the proffered reason is a pretext)." Harding v. Careerbuilder, LLC, 168 F.App'x 535, 537 (3d Cir. 2006).
For the purposes of its motion for summary judgment, Limestone did not contest that Monaco had a disability and that she was otherwise qualified for her position. Limestone argued, however, that Monaco could not meet the third prong of the prima facie case, that is, that she suffered an adverse employment action as a result of her disability. Monaco responded that she was given work schedules that made her disabilities worse and, when she would not quit, Limestone set up Monaco for termination by manipulating the schedule. Monaco argued that office manager Dussell lied about Monaco's statements to her on the day that Monaco's employment was terminated.
Turning to the facts of the case, the Court found that the record reflected that Limestone accommodated Monaco's medical condition by providing her with a modified working schedule. The Court noted that Monaco worked on October 20, 2011, left for a two (2)-hour lunch so that she could walk her dog, but later called to say she was unsure if she would be able to return to work that afternoon. When Monaco did not return that afternoon, despite the reminder that a suture lab would be held that afternoon and that her presence was needed, her employment was terminated.
The Court found that although it was undisputed that Monaco suffered an adverse employment action when her employment was terminated, the record did not reflect that Monaco's termination had anything to do with her disability. To the contrary, the Court noted that the record reflected that Monaco was terminated when she opted not to return to work after she "ran into a guy'' who had offered to help her with her finances. Based on the evidence in the record, the Court concluded that no reasonable trier of fact could find that Monaco was fired because of her PTSD and, therefore, that she could not prove the third element of the prima facie case.
The Court further noted that, even had Monaco established a prima facie case of disability discrimination, she had not produced evidence from which a reasonable juror could find that Limestone's reasons for its employment decisions were pretexts for discrimination. The Court explained that Limestone articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions, and that Monaco provided no evidence from which a fact-finder could either disbelieve Limestone's articulated reasons, or believe that discriminatory reasons were more likely than not the cause of the employment actions. See Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989). Accordingly, the Court concluded that there was no genuine dispute on the dispositive legal issue of whether Limestone had discriminatory motives.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court granted Limestone' motion for summary judgment on Monaco’s disability discrimination claim.
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