The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently made it easier for Ohio employees to prove a claim of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The court reversed 17-year-old precedent and found the “but for” causation standard appropriate for ADA claims.

In Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., No. 09-6381 (6th Cir. May 25, 2012), the employer terminated the plaintiff from her position as a registered nurse at one of the employer’s retirement homes. The plaintiff sued the employer under the ADA, claiming that the employer fired her because she had a medical condition that made it difficult for her to walk and that occasionally required her to use a wheelchair. The employer responded that it terminated the plaintiff based on an outburst at work in which she allegedly yelled, used profanity and criticized her supervisors.

When it came time to present her ADA claim to a jury, the plaintiff asked the court to instruct the jury that she could prevail if her disability was a “motivating factor” in the employer’s decision to terminate her. The employer asked the court to instruct the jury that the plaintiff could prevail only if the employer’s decision was “solely” because of the plaintiff’s disability. In requesting this instruction, the employer relied on 17 years of Sixth Circuit precedent requiring courts to instruct juries that ADA claimants may win only if they show that their disability was the “sole” reason for any adverse employment action against them.

The court rejected both approaches. It held that the plaintiff was required to show her disability was a “but for” cause of the employer’s decision to terminate her. In other words, the plaintiff was required to prove that “but for” her disability, her employer would not have terminated her. The court noted that its previous interpretation of the ADA was out of sync with the other circuits, none of which use the “sole” reason test.

With this decision, the Sixth Circuit reversed 17 years of precedent and eased the burden for employees bringing discrimination claims under the ADA. The court’s decision puts it in line with other federal circuits, but it is undoubtedly a loss for employers in the Sixth Circuit who will likely see an uptick in ADA claims.