SCOTUS’s Refusal to Hear Employment Cases Could Have Major Impact on Workers

Owen H. Laird, Esq.

We recently wrote about two labor and employment law cases that will be heard by the United States Supreme Court in its current session: Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Encino Motorcars, LLC, v. Hector Navarro, et al. These cases, however, were not the only labor and employment law cases submitted to the Court for certiorari. The Supreme Court only takes a small fraction of the cases that are submitted to it each year, and, this year, the Court elected not to weigh in on several significant employment law cases. Because the Court decided not to hear the appeals, the decisions of the circuit courts in those cases will stand.  Two cases in particular, Stevens v. Rite-Aid Corp. and Bartels v. 402 East Broughton Street Inc., could have a significant impact on employees.

In Stevens v. Rite-Aid Corp., the Second Circuit addressed the question of what constitutes an essential job function for the purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination in employment against a “qualified individual” on the basis of their disability. A “qualified individual” is defined as someone who, with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the “essential functions” of their job. In short, employers may not discriminate against employees with disabilities that do not prevent job performance, but when an employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job, even with an accommodation, the employer can terminate the employee.

The plaintiff in this case, Christopher Stevens, worked as a pharmacist. Mr. Stevens had a debilitating fear of needles, which made it impossible for him to administer vaccines. Defendant Rite Aid has its pharmacists administer vaccines and terminated Mr. Stevens because he was unable to do so. Mr. Stevens sued Rite Aid under the ADA, alleging that he was discriminated against because of a disability. The case went to trial, and the jury found in favor of Mr. Stevens. Rite Aid then moved to set aside the jury verdict, in part because it claimed Mr. Stevens’s inability to administer vaccines rendered him unable to perform an essential function of his job, which meant he was not protected by the ADA. The district court agreed and dismissed portions of Mr. Stevens’s case. Mr. Stevens appealed the decision to the Second Circuit, which affirmed the district court’s decision that providing vaccine injections was an essential function of Mr. Stevens’s job.

Mr. Stevens then sought to have his case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Second Circuit’s “essential function” analysis gives too much deference to the employer. The Second Circuit’s decision did explicitly state that the court must give deference to an employer’s judgment about what functions are essential. Because the Supreme Court chose not to hear this case, that employer-friendly standard is now the law of the Second Circuit and could pose difficulty for future plaintiffs bringing suit under the ADA.

The other significant employment law case not heard by the Court, Bartels v. 402 East Broughton Street Inc., involved a claim brought under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in the Eleventh Circuit. In that case, the plaintiff, Richard Bartels, claimed that he was fired from a Georgia car dealership because he informed his employer that he would need to take FMLA leave to care for his pregnant wife. The dealership responded that it fired Bartels for several reasons unrelated to his request for FMLA leave, such as his use of profanity and poor attitude. The district court ruled against Bartels, using a “but-for” standard of causation—one of the more stringent standards used. On appeal, Bartels argued that the court should use the less stringent “mixed-motive” standard, but the Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument out-of-hand on the grounds that Bartels did not previously raise it. Other circuits, including the Second Circuit, have already held that the “but-for” standard is not appropriate in the FMLA context, instead directing trial courts to use more plaintiff-friendly standards. However, as the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, “but-for” is now an applicable standard for FMLA retaliation claims in the Eleventh Circuit.

If you believe you have been discriminated against because of a disability, or retaliated against for requesting leave to care for a family member, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.