7th Circuit Issues Guidance to Employers Facing ADA “Regarded As” Claims

A recent case decided by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals provides helpful guidance for addressing “regarded as” disabled claims brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In defending its adverse actions against the employee, the employer rejected his claim that it regarded him as disabled because his impairment was both “transitory” and “minor.” The court held, however, that the employer didn’t adequately prove the employee’s condition was—objectively speaking—both transitory and minor. Further, a dispute over what was said at a particular meeting allowed the employee’s otherwise weak claim to go to a jury. This case underscores the importance of making sure you have good documentation of any meeting that results in tangible job changes.

Events Leading to Discharge Decision

In 1986, William H. Silk began working as an adjunct professor at Moraine Valley Community College. In March 2010, Silk accepted the college’s offer to teach two summer school classes. In April 2010, he underwent heart surgery, but by May he hadn’t provided the college a definitive return-to-work date.

While Silk was on leave during the spring semester, his superiors visited his classroom and noted problems with student attendance, a poor syllabus, use of the wrong textbook, and other deficiencies. On May 17, Silk sent the college a letter stating he was ready to resume teaching and would be able to take on a full course schedule for fall. In response, his superiors scheduled a meeting with him in July to discuss the issues they noted in his classroom while he was on leave.

During the meeting, the dean of the college stated that Silk should be assigned to teach no more than two courses for the fall 2010 semester because of concerns about his teaching performance. Silk, on the other hand, claimed that one of his superiors stated during the meeting that he was being assigned only two classes in the fall (fewer than his typical load) because they “didn’t think [he was] physically capable of handling [more].”

Professor’s Performance is Unacceptable

The dean of the college and another supervisor observed Silk teaching the two fall semester classes and found a bevy of problems, including students talking on their cell phones, playing video games, and talking amongst themselves. They noted that Silk relied too much on his notes, provided misinformation, cited statistics without sources, and appeared to base his lecture on personal experiences. Moreover, several students complained about him.

As a result of that performance assessment, the college fired Silk and put him on a “do-not-hire” list. However, because of an error, a different part of the college later hired him to teach two courses in 2011. When the college learned of the mistake, Silk’s new superior observed his classroom and, finding the same problems the previous supervisor noted, terminated him.

Silk filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, claiming that the college discriminated against him in violation of the ADA by regarding him as being disabled. The district court granted summary judgment to the college (ruling in its favor without sending the case to a jury). Silk appealed to the 7th Circuit.

7th Circuit Reverses in Part

The 7th Circuit reversed the district court’s decision in part and sent a small portion of Silk’s case back to be tried by a jury: his claim that his fall course load was reduced because the college regarded him as being disabled.

First, the court held that the college failed to prove that Silk’s medical impairment was both transitory and minor, which would have defeated his claim. The condition he suffered from was unclear, but he did have triple bypass surgery. The court emphasized that although he recovered from the surgery in just a few days—which would usually suggest a transitory and minor condition—the surgery was the impairment. The court concluded that the college failed to prove that a heart condition severe enough to require triple bypass surgery was merely transitory or minor. Accordingly, it allowed Silk’s “regarded as” claim to proceed.

The court also held that there was a material question of fact about whether the college discriminatorily reduced Silk’s fall course load because it perceived him as being disabled. The court focused on the July meeting in which the college officials informed Silk that they were reducing his fall course load because of concerns about his teaching performance. Silk, on the other hand, testified that one of the decision makers said they were reducing his workload because they didn’t think he was physically capable of handling it.

Because the reason for the reduction of Silk’s course load was an outcome-determinative question and each party disputed the stated reason for the decision, the court reversed the dismissal of the claim and sent it back to the trial court for a jury to decide. Silk v. Moraine Valley Community College, District No. 524.

Bottom Line

This case serves as a good reminder that you should clearly document key discussions about changes in the terms and conditions of an employee’s employment and give the employee a chance to review and sign the summary of the discussion. Had there been strong documentation of the key July meeting about Silk’s course load, it’s possible that he couldn’t have created a material question about what was said in the meeting.

Further, if you’re trying to show that you didn’t regard an employee’s impairment as a disability because it was transitory and minor, you must have medical documentation or other evidence to prove your claim.

We hope this information is valuable to you. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Holman HR.