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When Is Discriminatory Intent Required in a Claim Under the Americans With Disabilities Act?

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The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals took on this challenging question in Punt v. Kelly Services, No. 16-1026 (10th Cir. 2017).

Kristin Punt (“Punt”) sued Kelly Services (“Kelly”) and their parent company, GE Controls Services, making claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”). Punt was hired as a temporary employee whose assignment by a staffing agency (Kelly) to work as the receptionist for another business. She was terminated after she missed a significant amount of work while being tested for breast cancer and informed the agency that, due to her cancer, she needed to take a full week plus an additional unknown amount of time off for more tests, appointments, and radiation treatments. Punt claimed Kelly discriminated against her under the ADA and GINA, and that is why she was terminated. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Kelly showed that Punt had been unreliable, repeatedly late, and lied about doctors’ appointments, and that is why she was terminated. Punt appealed. Punt appealed claiming the magistrate’s discovery ruling was overbroad. The Court of Appeals affirmed the magistrate’s ruling.

The Court of Appeals said it must first determine what type of ADA claim was at issue in this case. In general, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability but the disabled person must show that the adverse action taken was on the basis of the disability. In most types of ADA cases, this is done by proving the employer acted with discriminatory intent, shown either through direct evidence or through circumstantial evidence.

One type of ADA claim does not require evidence of discriminatory intent: a failure to accommodate claim. Under the ADA, an employer must make reasonable accommodations for known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability. Unless, the employer can show that making the accommodations would cause an undue burden on the employer.

In this case, Punt made a failure to accommodate claim, but Kelly said based on the evidence Punt presented, she should have to plead a disparate-treatment claim. The Court of Appeals said to win on a failure to accommodate claim, Punt would have to show that she is disabled, she is otherwise qualified, and that the accommodations she requested were reasonable.

Punt said she requested a reasonable accommodation when she informed her supervisor at Kelly on a Monday morning that she planned not to come to work this week at all and said she would need time off for appointments and tests and for radiation. The Court of Appeals that this request was not reasonable because an employee’s request to be relieved from an essential function of her position is not, as a matter of law, a reasonable or even plausible accommodation. Attendance in the workplace is itself an essential function of most jobs. Under the circumstances of this case, and especially in light of Punt’s position as a temporary employee whose physical presence at the workplace was the most essential function of her job, the Court held the accommodation Punt requested was unreasonable as a matter of law. The Court affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Defendants on Plaintiff’s ADA claim. The Court also affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment in favor of the Defendants on the GINA claim.

The Metier Law Firm is committed to assisting people with personal injury claims throughout Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, and we frequently serve as co-counsel to law firms nationwide. Tom Metier recently secured the largest personal injury verdict in Colorado

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