Company’s Wording of Termination Letter, Which Mentioned Employee’s Disability Leave, Was Direct Evidence of Discrimination

Published Date: 
May 21, 2012
Author: 
Maria Greco Danaher (Pittsburgh),

“Direct evidence” is evidence that, if believed, leads to the conclusion that discrimination was at least one motivating factor in an adverse employment action.  An employer’s termination letter, stating that the employee was being terminated due to her inability to do her job during a medical leave, was “direct evidence” of discrimination sufficient to support summary judgment in her favor and against her employer.  Coffman v. Robt. J. Young Co, Inc., No 3:10-cv-001052, MDTN,  May 14, 2012. 

Catherine Coffman began working for Robert J. Young Company (RJYC) in 1994.  From 1999 until 2009, she worked as a copy center operator, making copies, printing and scanning documents, assisting and conducting machine repair, and providing customer service.  On April 25, 2009, Coffman was in a non-work-related motorcycle accident, in which she was severely injured.  Based upon her injuries, Coffman received 12 weeks of FMLA leave, during which she remained in communication with her employer, providing regular medical updates.  At the conclusion of her leave, Coffman informed RJYC that she still could only use one hand/arm, in response to which she was told that she could return in a sedentary job with equivalent pay.  Coffman refused that position, and took disability leave during which she underwent physical therapy and continued treatment to improve her condition.  On October 28, 2009, she then was released by her doctor to return to work on November 23 with a 10-pound lifting restriction, and limitations on pushing, pulling, and overhead lifting, 

Although Coffman felt that she could have performed her job duties at that time with minimal accommodation, RJYC’s human resource (HR) director and the company’s general counsel decided to fire her at that point, and did so without first engaging in the required interactive process required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and without obtaining any additional medical information regarding Coffman’s condition or limitations.  Instead, on November 10, 2009, Coffman received a letter stating that “given [that] you are unable to perform the tasks of your job, we have found it necessary to hire someone to fill the vacancy created by your need to take long-term disability.”  The letter further stated that “[d]ue to your long term disability we must terminate your employment.”

Coffman filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging that she was fired in violation of the ADA.  At the close of discovery, the company filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Coffman was not disabled and, therefore, there could be no ADA violation.  Coffman filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, alleging that the company fired her because it “regarded” her as disabled, which also is a violation of the ADA.  Coffman pointed to her termination letter as “direct evidence” of the company’s unlawful conduct.  She also cited the HR director’s deposition testimony that the employee was terminated based on the company’s assumption that she could not (or would not) come to work, as well as the deposition testimony of the company’s general counsel that “you can either work or you’re receiving long-term disability benefits which say I can’t work, I need long-term disability benefits.” Based upon this testimony and evidence, a reasonable jury could find that the decision to fire Coffman was motivated, at least in part, by her disability or perceived disability.  The district court therefore denied the company’s motion for summary judgment, and granted Coffman’s partial motion for summary judgment on her ADA claim.

In this case, the court granted the employee’s motion, which means that the court determined that there was no real question that the company’s decision to terminate Coffman was based, at least in part, on her actual/perceived disability.  While the company pointed out a number of factors that it believed supported its own arguments, the reality is that its own poor word choice in the termination letter led to the company’s failure to have the case dismissed as a matter of law at the summary judgment stage, and to a determination that could lead to legal liability in this case.  Because this decision was made by a Tennessee district court, it can be appealed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  However, the case sends a clear message to employers to assure that terminations are based upon non-discriminatory business-related objectives, and that written notification of employment status clearly reflects those legitimate business reasons.