E-Alert Case Updates
Delaware Federal Court Examines Disability Discrimination Claims Under the ADA
Tamra N. Robinson v. First State Community Action Agency
Tamra N. Robinson v. First State Community Action Agency involved a Plaintiff’s discrimination lawsuit against her former employer alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et. seq. The Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, on the grounds that the Plaintiff failed to show that she suffered an adverse employment action because of a disability. The United States District Court for the District of Delaware found that the Defendant was aware of the Plaintiff’s alleged dyslexia and her desire for additional training, however, the Defendant never attempted to verify that the Plaintiff was disabled or if she could be reasonably accommodated, prior to terminating her employment. Thus, the Court concluded that there was a genuine issue of a material fact as to whether the Plaintiff had suffered an adverse employment action because of a disability. Accordingly, the Court denied the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
By way of factual background, in October 2009, Plaintiff Tamra N. Robinson (“Robinson” or “Plaintiff”) was hired by Defendant First State Community Action Agency (“First State” or “Defendant”) as an Individual Deposit Account Counselor. In October 2010, Plaintiff was transitioned to the position of Default Counselor. In September 2011, First State hired Karen Garrett (“Garrett”) who became Robinson’s new direct supervisor. Garrett assumed that Robinson had completed all testing and certifications for her position of Default Counselor, but never reviewed Robinson’s personnel file to confirm.
In December 2011, Garrett became very dissatisfied with Robinson’s work, and asked Robinson “if she knew what she was doing or if she had dyslexia.” Due to Garrett’s comment, Robinson sought a psychological evaluation from Phyllis H. Parker, Ph.D. After the evaluation, Dr. Parker drafted a report stating that based on her psychological training and experience, Robinson had indicators of dyslexia. Thereafter, Robinson provided a copy of Dr. Parker’s report to Garrett. Garrett forwarded a copy of the report to her supervisor, David Bull (“Bull”).
On January 6, 2012, Garret issued a performance appraisal of Robinson noting areas where improvement was needed, including job knowledge, quality of work, and communication. Because of this performance appraisal, Robinson was put on a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”) which provided:
On January 20 2012, during an email exchange with Bull and Garrett, Robinson asked if there would be any “reasonable accommodations made for her dyslexia.” Bull advised that Robinson needed “to improve her job performance within the next 45 days or her employment would be at risk.” In response, Robinson requested more hands-on training to understand the process better and improve her job performance. Bull replied that First State “did not recognize the information provided in Dr. Parker’s report as an impediment to job performance,” and that “the instructions and expectations in the PIP had to be followed.”
On February 3, 2012, Robinson received a letter terminating her employment with First State. The letter stated that the reason for termination was due to Robinson’s “unsatisfactory job performance.” The termination letter also referenced a specific incident during the week of January 24, 2012, noting that “a housing client’s case was almost irreparable resulting from your failure to perform your job responsibilities.” On September 17, 2014, Robinson filed a lawsuit against First State alleging disability discrimination in violation of the ADA. First State subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56.
The Court began its analysis by noting that “under the ADA, to pursue a disability discrimination claim a plaintiff must be able to establish that he or she (1) has a ‘disability’ (2) is a ‘qualified individual’ and (3) has suffered an adverse employment action because of that disability.” See Deane v. Pocono Med. Ctr., 142 F.3d 138, 142 (3d Cir. 1998). The Court explained that the ADA defined a “disability” as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” See 42 U.S.C. § 12102.
First State argued that Robinson had not shown any adverse action due to a disability. The Court explained that “adverse action under the ADA encompasses not only adverse actions motivated by prejudice and fear of disabilities, but also includes failing to make reasonable accommodations for a plaintiff's disabilities.” See Taylor v. Phoenixville Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 296, 306 (3d Cir. 1999). The Court noted that First State’s argument also rested in part on whether Robinson was disabled.
Turning to the facts of the case, the Court noted that on January 20, 2012, after submitting Dr. Parker’s psychological evaluation, Robinson sought reasonable accommodations, including hands-on organized training. The Court also noted that in response to her request, Robinson was only advised to follow the PIP, despite the representation in the plan document that the training and support necessary to complete the PIP successfully would be provided. According to the Court, no reasonable accommodations were offered prior to Robinson’s termination on February 3, 2012, and nothing in the record indicated any efforts made by First State to provide the training and support needed for successful completion of the PIP.
The Court explained that “once the employer knows of the disability and the employee’s desire for accommodations, it makes sense to place the burden on the employer to request additional information that the employer believes it needs.” See Taylor, 184 F.3d at 315. The Court noted that Garrett testified that she never attempted to contact Dr. Parker to discuss Robinson’s evaluation, and that Bull also testified that he never contacted Dr. Parker. Accordingly, the Court concluded that First State “failed to engage in an interactive process to verify that Robinson was disabled or if she could be reasonably accommodated.” For the above reasons, the Court denied First State’s motion for summary judgment.
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