On May 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires plaintiffs to prove their disabilities were a “but for” cause of any adverse employment action. Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., Inc., Case No. 09-6381.
In reaching this holding, the Sixth Circuit:
- abandoned its precedent that required plaintiffs to show their disabilities were the “sole” reason for any adverse action; and
- joined the Seventh Circuit in adopting the “but for” standard over the “motivating factor” test from Title VII.
In this case, a registered nurse sued her former employer Humboldt Acquisition Corp., a retirement home company, alleging the company fired her because of a disability that made it hard for her to walk. The company claimed the termination was based on the plaintiff’s inappropriate outburst on the job.
At trial, the parties asked the court for different jury instructions on the causation standard. The company argued that the plaintiff must show her disability was the “sole reason” she was fired. The plaintiff, on the other hand, argued that she must only show her disability was a “motivating factor” for the adverse action. The trial court adopted the company’s instruction, and the jury sided with the defendant.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded, unanimously rejecting the trial court’s “sole reason” jury instruction. The court found that this causation standard, grounded in the text of the Rehabilitation Act, was unsupported by the language or legislative history of the ADA. Accordingly, the court concluded it was time to follow the other circuit courts and abandon this “out of touch” standard.
A divided panel of the court also rejected the plaintiff’s proposed “motivating factor” instruction. The court found that this standard, grounded in the 1991 amendments to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, was also unsupported by the ADA.
Instead, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the Supreme Court’s opinion in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, 557 U.S. 167 (2009) established the proper causation standard. In Gross, a case involving the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), the Court explained that because the ADEA prohibits discrimination “because of” a person’s age, the statute requires “but for” causation. In so holding, the Court declined to import Title VII’s “motivating factor” causation standard into the ADEA. In light of Gross, the Sixth Circuit similarly held that because the ADA prohibits discrimination “because of” a person’s disability, the statute also requires “but for” causation.
With this decision, the Sixth Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in applying the “but for” causation standard to ADA claims. The remaining Circuit Courts, however, apply a version of the “motivating factor” standard borrowed from Title VII.