The Vital Importance of a Motive ‘Rooted in Discrimination’ to a Workers’ Georgia Disability Discrimination Lawsuit

Sometimes, a degree of employer flexibility may be an important ingredient in that employer avoiding employment litigation and potential civil liability. However, as a recent disability discrimination case originating in Savannah highlights, the mere fact that an employer behaved in a way that seems excessively strict, harsh, or severe, doesn’t necessarily mean the employer broke the law. Even if the employer fired a worker based on motivations that were not “prudent or fair” — or had no reason at all for the termination — that firing is permissible as long as it “was not rooted in discrimination” or some other basis forbidden by law. Whether you’re an employer defending against a disability discrimination lawsuit or a worker harmed by illegal discrimination, an experienced Atlanta disability discrimination lawyer can be crucial in protecting your rights and interests.

The worker in the Savannah case was a crane operator for the State of Georgia’s ports authority. He also was an Army veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his time in combat.

In the summer of 2018, the operator requested 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave to undergo “intensive therapy” for PTSD. As the 12 weeks neared their end, the operator’s doctor recommended 12 more weeks of leave, and the employer approved the extension. Near the end of the second 12-week period, the operator requested a transfer to a different work area. HR informed the operator that he needed to submit a signed letter that (1) stated he could safely return to work and (2) listed the disability accommodation (transfer) he sought.

The operator provided a letter, but it was unsigned. It also, according to the employer, did not adequately document that the operator was safe to return to work. Based on the operator’s failure to provide a satisfactory return-to-work letter, the employer fired the operator.

The operator sued for disability discrimination in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Georgia law, but the employer fought back and successfully procured a summary judgment in its favor. The employer persuaded the trial judge that the operator’s evidence could not establish discriminatory intent.

The operator used the McDonnell Douglas v. Green method for establishing discrimination. That process initially demands a worker establish a prima facie case of discrimination (which requires showing that he “(1) is disabled, (2) is a qualified individual, and (3) was discriminated against because of [his] disability.”) Once the worker does that, the employer must offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action, and then the worker must show that the employer’s stated reason was merely a pretext for discrimination.

No Evidence of ‘Discriminatory Animus’ = No Statutory Violation

The court agreed with the trial judge that the operator failed to establish the essential element of pretext. The employer’s rules required that any worker returning from medical leave provide a signed letter that sufficiently established that he could safely return to work. The operator’s letter didn’t meet those demands. The employer’s failure to engage in follow-up to help rectify the deficiency (like contacting the operator’s treating physician) might seem like a strict application of workplace rules, but the operator offered nothing to show that “discriminatory animus” drove the employer’s hyper-strict enforcement of its rules.

Even mistaken employer beliefs may be enough to defeat a discrimination lawsuit. Firing an employee for violating employer policy — even if the employee actually violated no rules — may be enough to avoid liability if the employer demonstrates that it had a good faith belief that a policy violation occurred.

When a worker lacks that proof of discriminatory animus, the employer is entitled to a judgment in its favor.

If you have questions about the ADA or Georgia’s laws regarding disability discrimination, the team of Atlanta disability discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert has the experience-driven, reliable answers you need. Whether you’re the employer or the employee, our knowledge can be an essential asset to you. Contact us today at 404-873-8048 or through this website to schedule a consultation.

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