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Sixth Circuit upholds dismissal of age, disability claims

04.01.2007

The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Kentucky) recently upheld a district court’s dismissal of claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and analogous claims under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (KCRA). Read on to learn more about the difficulties employees face in attempting to establish a prima facie, or initial, case under the ADA and ADEA.

Facts

In 1978, Phillip Fricke began working for DuPont, a science and chemical company, at its Louisville plant. Because he worked in various capacities, he fell under the direction of different supervisors. Before July 2001, Brent Sparks supervised him, and after that time, he was supervised by Maureen Atchison.

As early as 2000, Fricke began having problems at work. For instance, he exhibited unusual and inappropriate behavior and had interpersonal issues with coworkers. Consequently, DuPont placed him on a targeted renewal plan designed to improve his work performance. Although he claimed he met the guidelines set forth in the plan, Atchison placed him on probation.

Fricke met with Atchison in January 2002 to discuss his probationary period and renewal plan. She claimed that he tried to intimidate her at the meeting. He disputed that account, however, telling Atchison that she and Sparks had harassed him and he felt they had “emotionally raped” him.

Later that month, Fricke attended an electrical safety meeting in which he exhibited unusual behavior, according to DuPont. As a result, two HR employees escorted him to the plant’s medical division, where they helped him set up an appointment for an evaluation and counseling. He was placed on medical leave, and DuPont called a taxi to take him home. For his part, Fricke asserted that he was removed under false pretenses.

While he was off work, Fricke received short-term disability, which was set to expire in July 2002. At that time, DuPont informed him that he hadn’t been cleared to work. Fricke disputed that assessment, claiming that every health care professional he had consulted said he was fit for duty, but he didn’t provide any support for that claim.

DuPont informed Fricke that one of his options was disability retirement with pension benefits. Aetna, DuPont’s designated third-party administrator, determined that he was incapable of performing work for the company, making him eligible for benefits. His retirement became effective July 31, 2002, and he began receiving pension benefits in August 2002.

Court’s decision

Fricke alleged that DuPont violated the ADA, ADEA, and KCRA. The trial court dismissed all three of his claims, finding that DuPont hadn’t taken an adverse employment action against him. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s holding but cited different grounds.

The appeals court first found that Fricke lacked direct evidence of discriminatory intent, a necessary element of his ADEA claim. Fricke argued that he possessed “smoking gun” evidence in the form of allegedly discriminatory comments made by Sparks and Atchison. The court noted, though, that neither supervisor was part of the decision-making process that resulted in a change in his employment status.

Fricke also couldn’t prove age discrimination because he was unable to demonstrate that he was replaced by another person, let alone someone under the age of 40. DuPont cited evidence that several other employees assumed his job duties. The court noted that under the ADEA, a person isn’t replaced when another employee is assigned to perform his duties in addition to other duties or when the work is redistributed among other existing employees. Rather, a person is replaced only when another employee is hired or reassigned to perform his duties.

Finally, Fricke couldn’t show that DuPont violated the ADA. His specific claim was that he was disabled and that DuPont regarded him as being disabled. The court found that his claim failed because the evidence supported DuPont’s argument that it kept him fro returning to his job because of his temperament and personality conflicts with other employees and because he didn’t receive a medical release to return to work. The analogous KCRA claims failed for the same reasons. Fricke v. E.I. DuPont Co., U.S. App. LEXIS 2425 (6th Cir., Jan. 31, 2007).

Bottom line

This case wasn’t a close call. DuPont had several strong arguments to supports its position that Fricke couldn’t establish an initial case of either age or disability discrimination. As this decision makes clear, before you replace an employee in the protected age group, it’s imperative to assess how and to whom his work will be reassigned.

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If you have any questions or need help, please contact any member of the Greenebaum Doll & McDonald Labor and Employment Department.. 

Copyright 2007 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC 
KENTUCKY EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual problems but rather to provide information about current developments in Kentucky employment law.  Questions about individual problems should be addressed to the employment law attorney of your choice.

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