Understanding the Three-Step Process for Presenting Discrimination Claims

In a disability discrimination lawsuit, there is a three-step process that courts use to decide whether there is a “material” dispute that justifies trying the case on its merits. In the first step, the plaintiff–the affected employee–must make a “prima facie case of discrimination.” At the second step, the burden shifts to the employer to present a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for its actions. If that is satisfied, the third step shifts the burden back to the employee to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the employer's reasons are nothing more than a “pretext for discrimination.”

Judge Dismisses Ex-Assistant's Lawsuit After County Offers “Legitimate” Cause for Firing

With respect to disability discrimination in particular, the plaintiff must show that their physical or mental impairment was a “motivating factor” in the adverse employment decision. This requires more than simply saying you had a disability and were later fired. You must point to specific evidence connecting the two events for the benefit of the judge.

Here is a recent example in which a plaintiff failed to accomplish this task. The plaintiff in this case worked as an assistant in the County Executive's office of an upstate New York county government. During her employment, the plaintiff said she suffered a heart attack. She subsequently returned to work without medical restriction, although she remained on “extensive medication regimen [with] attendant lifestyle restrictions.”

About two weeks after her return to the office, the plaintiff said the Deputy County Executive decided to move her to the receptionist position in the office, albeit it with the same pay and title as her previous assignment. This reassignment lasted about six weeks. The Deputy County Executive moved the plaintiff backed to her prior assignment after the County Executive said she received “complaints from constituents” about the plaintiff's telephone manner.

Several weeks later, the Deputy County Executive fired the plaintiff while she was on a scheduled vacation. The Deputy County Executive said the plaintiff was let go due to her “poor work performance.” The plaintiff subsequently filed a disability discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which eventually led to the present lawsuit.

In a May 24 order, U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd dismissed the plaintiff's complaint. While the plaintiff made a “prima facie” case for discrimination, the judge found the county offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for firing the plaintiff, i.e. her poor work performance. In response, the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence that would allow a jury to conclude that her disability–her heart attack–“played a motivating factor in the County's decision to terminate her,” or that the county's stated reasons for its decision was pretextual. Indeed, the judge noted the plaintiff herself admitted she had “been counseled about her work performance on prior occasions” and had at times failed to perform her duties to the County Executive's satisfaction.

A New York Employment Discrimination Lawyer can Help You

If you suspect you are being mistreated at work due to a disability, you should carefully document any incident or evidence that may help you in building a case later. You should also speak with an experienced New York employment attorney who can review your case and advise you on the best course of action going forward. Contact the Law Offices of Nisar, White & Hilferty, LLP, to speak with a lawyer right away.


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