Is an "Unfair" Employment Decision Necessarily Discrimination?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state and local laws are designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of a person's physical or mental impairments. But it is important to understand the ADA is not a proverbial “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Your employer can still discipline or fire you for unsatisfactory job performance, provided that is not simply a pretext to mask a discriminatory motive.

Judge Finds Plaintiff in ADA Case Violated the ADA Himself

Recently, a federal judge in upstate New York dismissed a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by a community college professor. In an ironic twist, the judge agreed that the school had a legitimate reason to discipline the plaintiff: He failed to comply with the ADA with respect to his own work.

Here is what happened according to the judge's opinion. The professor taught economics at the college. The school required he teach at least five classes per semester, but he chose to take on seven classes, as he earned extra pay for the “over load.”

Two of the seven classes were taught online rather than in-person. During the Fall 2012 semester, a student complained to the college's distance learning director that the plaintiff's class “was lacking in content and could be finished in one weekend.” The director said he investigated the charge and not only determined the student was right–the “content was lacking”–but also that the plaintiff's online materials did not comply with the ADA.

The ADA covers more than employer obligations to employees. It also deals with issues regarding access to public facilities and programs. Here, the director noted that among other shortcomings the professor “used scanned exam files that would not be compatible with the voice recognition software used by blind students.”

The plaintiff conceded he did not comply with the ADA but denied the course content itself was deficient. Nevertheless, school officials removed the plaintiff from teaching any further online classes. Although the school offered to allow the plaintiff to teach two additional in-person classes–so he would not lose income–the plaintiff declined, citing his own health condition.

Indeed, the plaintiff turned around and argued he was the victim of discrimination based on a pulmonary condition that limited “his ability to breathe and walk.” He filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and later sued the college directly in federal court. Essentially, the plaintiff maintained that he was disciplined unfairly due to his disability.

As noted above, the judge dismissed the case. The court concluded that the college offered a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for taking away the plaintiff's online classes, i.e. his failure to comply with the ADA. In any event, “Courts are not permitted to second-guess an employer's evaluative business determinations,” such as whether a professor's course content is adequate. While the school's actions may have been “unfair,” the judge said the ADA does not prevent unfair disciplinary decisions, only discriminatory ones.

Need Advice Regarding a Possible Discrimination Claim?

Disability discrimination cases are highly fact-specific. If you are unsure as to whether or not your employer's actions towards you may be illegal, it is critical you seek advice from an experienced New York employment attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Nisar Law Group, P.C., to speak with a disability discrimination lawyer today.