Employment Law

Inability to Work Overtime Dooms ADA Lawsuit

Why it matters

Where overtime was an essential job function, the inability to work the extra hours doomed a plaintiff’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit, a federal court in Texas recently ruled. A delivery specialist for Wright Medical Technology, Quentin Jiles was injured in an automobile accident while on the job. When he returned to work, his physician indicated that he could not work overtime or in heat above 90 degrees. The employer refused to allow him to return and then terminated Jiles after concluding it could not accommodate his restrictions. Jiles filed suit alleging violations of the ADA, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and Texas state law. Reviewing case law, the Texas federal judge determined that overtime can be an essential job function. Although there was some evidence to support Jiles’ claims of disability discrimination and retaliation based on his medical condition and use of leave, the court found that his inability to work overtime made it impossible for him to prevail on his claims, granting summary judgment in favor of the employer.

Detailed discussion

As a delivery specialist for Wright Medical Technology (WMT), Quentin Jiles made pickups and deliveries of medical implants and instruments to and from hospitals, doctors’ offices and clinics in the Houston area. In April 2014, Jiles was involved in an automobile accident while working. After a physician determined he suffered a cervical strain on his shoulder, Jiles took several weeks of leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

After returning to work, he visited his own doctor, who determined he had high blood pressure and needed rest for two weeks. Jiles extended his leave until August, when he informed WMT that he was ready to return to work. His doctor cleared him to return, albeit with two restrictions: Jiles could not work overtime or in heat of more than 90 degrees or below 32 degrees. Given that the written description for delivery specialists included the need to work overtime and the fact it was August in Houston—with temperatures routinely in the 90s—WMT did not permit Jiles to return to work.

The employer terminated Jiles, finding no position in a climate-controlled environment that did not require overtime. Jiles filed suit in response, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), FMLA and Texas state law.

WMT filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Jiles could not state a claim under the ADA because he could not safely perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodations, nor could he meet his prima facie burden for his FMLA or state law claims.

U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller first considered whether overtime or working outdoors in certain temperatures can be an essential job function. Citing decisions from Texas federal court as well as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Eleventh Circuits, the court agreed with the employer that both requirements can be essential functions on a case-by-case basis.

“These cases make clear that (1) overtime can be an essential function of a job; (2) working outdoors or exposure to extreme temperatures can be an essential function of a job; (3) courts consider the written job description as an important factor in determining essential functions; (4) courts consider the actual duties of the plaintiff and others performing the job to be an important factor in determining essential functions; and (5) the employer may clarify restrictions with a physician; but (6) courts should avoid allowing after-the-fact characterizations of the restrictions to impact the analysis,” the court said.

With this guidance in hand, the court turned to the most important factor: whether the employer considers the restricted function to be essential. Between the written job description, a letter sent to Jiles before he was hired and a declaration from a human resources representative that all stated overtime was required, as well as the fact Jiles regularly worked overtime before he was injured, the court was convinced. “This evidence, taken together, would indicate to any reasonable juror that WMT believed … overtime was required,” the court said.

A question of fact remained with regard to temperatures, however. All the parties seemed to agree that it is hot in Houston in August, but the court was unable to draw any conclusions about the requirement of working in such temperatures.

However, given that the “balance of factors weighs so heavily in WMT’s favor that no reasonable juror could conclude that overtime was not an essential function of the delivery specialist job,” Jiles failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, the court said. “Because Jiles’s physician restricted him from performing one of the essential functions of his job—overtime—the court concludes that Jiles was not ‘qualified’ for the job under the ADA.”

Judge Miller also rejected Jiles’s claim of failure to accommodate under the ADA. Despite the plaintiff’s contention that the interactive process was “a joke,” and his argument that WMT could have provided several accommodations (a handheld fan, mesh uniform or warehouse work, for example), the court held that the ADA does not require an employer to modify the essential functions of an employee’s position or create a new position for him.

“If Jiles were to continue as a delivery specialist, WMT would have had to assign all overtime to the other drivers to conform with Jiles’s medical restrictions, and it is not required to transfer the disabled employee’s responsibilities that are essential functions to other employees,” the court wrote. As Jiles failed to provide any suggested accommodation for not being able to work overtime, he failed to meet his burden, the court said, granting the motion to dismiss the ADA claim.

For similar reasons, the court likewise granted the motion to dismiss Jiles’s FMLA and state law claims, despite evidence that his supervisors were unhappy about his leave. “Notwithstanding the statements by Jiles’s supervisor and hubmanager and the perceived lack of empathy by [human resources] that lead to an inference of discriminatory motive, WMT has presented sufficient evidence to show that it would have terminated Jiles’s employment anyway because he could not perform the essential functions of his job,” Judge Miller said.

The court dismissed all the plaintiff’s claims with prejudice.

To read the memorandum opinion and order in Jiles v. Wright Medical Technology, Inc., click here.

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Second Circuit OKs Punitives for Civil Rights Plaintiff

Why it matters

Discrimination claims brought under New York City law are not subject to the same standard as Title VII when considering whether to award punitive damages, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled, with a little help from the New York Court of Appeals. Physical therapy aide Veronika Chauca alleged that Park Management Systems fired her while she was on maternity leave. A federal judge denied her request to instruct the jury on punitive damages, and Chauca—who was awarded more than $60,000 in compensatory damages by jurors—appealed. The Second Circuit accepted the case but then sent it to New York’s highest court, asking for guidance on the standard for awarding punitive damages under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). Last year, the court answered: Punitives are available in circumstances of “willful or wanton negligence” or “a conscious disregard of the rights of others.” With the case returned to the federal appellate panel, it held that the district court had erred in refusing to instruct the jury on punitive damages, as it had applied the more stringent standard of Title VII rather than the more liberal standard found in the NYCHRL.

Detailed discussion

Physical therapy aide Veronika Chauca sued her former employer for sex and pregnancy discrimination under Title VII, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

At trial, her attorney requested a jury instruction on punitive damages under the NYCHRL. The district judge applied the standard for punitive damages found in Title VII: whether the plaintiff submitted evidence that her employer had intentionally discriminated against her with malice or reckless indifference to her protected rights. Finding no evidence in support of this standard, the court denied the instruction.

The jury awarded Chauca in excess of $60,000, but she appealed, arguing that the court erred by importing the Title VII standard for punitive damages. Considering the issue, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found itself stumped. The NYCHRL “provides no specific guidance” on an applicable standard for punitive damages, the federal appellate panel said, so it certified the question to the New York Court of Appeals for an answer.

Last year, the state’s highest court ruled that punitive damages are not automatically available with a showing of liability under the NYCHRL, but that plaintiffs do not need to meet the heightened standard set by Title VII.

Instead, the court held that plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages “where the wrongdoer’s actions amount to willful or wanton negligence, or recklessness, or where there is ‘a conscious disregard of the rights of others or conduct so reckless as to amount to such disregard.’”

This standard represents “the lowest threshold, and the least stringent form, for the state of mind required to impose punitive damages,” the court wrote. “By implementing a lower degree of culpability and eschewing the knowledge requirement, applying this standard adheres to the City Council’s liberal construction mandate while remaining consistent with the language of the statute.”

Back before the Second Circuit, the panel reconsidered what happened at the district court—the trial judge had denied Chauca’s request to provide a jury instruction concerning the availability of punitive damages under NYCHRL because it applied the standard for an award of punitives under Title VII, the court explained.

The New York Court of Appeals “expressly rejected the application of the federal standard for punitive damages,” the panel wrote. “We thus hold that the district court did not apply the proper standard in declining to submit the question of punitive damages to the jury. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court is vacated and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this decision.”

To read the decision in Chauca v. Abraham, click here.

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Employers Can Save With DOL’s PAID Program

Why it matters

In an effort to facilitate the resolution of potential Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) violations, the Department of Labor (DOL) has announced a new program. The Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program permits employers to conduct self-audits of their payroll practices for potential minimum wage and overtime violations and voluntarily report any underpayments to the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD). The agency will then supervise the back wage payments. To participate, employers must identify the violations, the impacted employees and the time periods of the violations, as well as compute the back wages owed to each worker. With this data in hand, the employer may ask to take part in the six-month pilot initiative. The DOL touted the program as beneficial both to workers (who will receive back wages without having to pay any litigation expenses or attorneys’ fees) and to employers, who will not be required to pay penalties or liquidated damages if they choose to participate in the PAID program.

Detailed discussion

A new nationwide pilot program launched by the Department of Labor (DOL) will attempt to expedite resolution of inadvertent overtime and minimum wage violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program aims to resolve overtime and minimum wage violations of the FLSA “expeditiously and without litigation, to improve employers’ compliance with overtime and minimum wage obligations, and to ensure that more employees receive the back wages they are owed—faster.”

All FLSA-covered employers are eligible to participate in the pilot, with the exception of those already under investigation by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) or employers already facing litigation, arbitration or similar legal action. “An employer likewise may not initiate the process when an employee’s representative or counsel has already communicated an interest in litigating or settling the issue,” the DOL said.

To participate in the program, employers must audit their compensation practices for potentially noncompliant practices. If the employer discovers any noncompliant practices, or if the employer believes its compensation practices may be lawful but wishes to proactively resolve any potential claims anyway, four steps are required: Specifically identify the potential violations; identify which employees were affected; identify the time frames during which each employee was affected; and calculate the back wage amounts the employer believes are owed to each employee.

The employer then contacts WHD to discuss the issues for which it seeks resolution. Unless the agency denies the employer’s request to participate, WHD will provide direction on how to submit the required information. Additional data (such as evidence and explanation for each of the calculations made by the employer, and a concise explanation of the scope of the potential violations) for possible inclusion in a release of information must also be provided.

Multiple certifications will also be necessary: one indicating that the employer reviewed all the information, terms and compliance assistance materials; a second affirming that the employer is not litigating the compensation practices in court or arbitration and has received no communications from an employee’s representative; and a third that indicates the employer will adjust its practices to avoid the same potential violations in the future.

WHD will evaluate the information and reach out to the employer to discuss the next steps. Once the agency confirms the back wages due, it will issue forms for employees to sign in order to receive payment. Employers must pay all back wages due by the end of the next full pay period after receiving a summary from the WHD and provide proof of payment to the agency.

Employees are free to choose whether to accept the payment of back wages due, and employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees for their choice. If an employee decides not to accept the payment, he or she does not release any private right of action against the employer. On the other hand, if the employee accepts the payment, the release is tailored only to the identified violations and time period and does not provide a broad release of all potential claims under the FLSA.

Employers will not be assessed civil money penalties or liquidated damages if they elect to participate in the program, the DOL promised, although they must agree to correct their pay practices going forward, and the program cannot be used repeatedly to resolve the same potential violations. Participation in the program does not waive the DOL’s right to investigate new or repeat violations.

After approximately six months, the WHD will evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot, determine potential modifications to the program and decide whether to make PAID permanent.

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