Jimmy Wilson had been working as a supervisor for Bamberg, S.C.-based Phoenix Specialty Manufacturing Co. Inc. for 10 years when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1998. A panic attack during a May 2001 meeting alerted his superiors to his condition. Wilson's physician said he was able to continue performing the functions of his job, but a little more than a year later, Wilson was laid off.
Wilson sued, alleging his firing was a pretext for discrimination based on a perception that he was disabled. In Wilson v. Phoenix Specialty Manu. Co. Inc., the South Carolina Federal District Court found that company management regarded Wilson as disabled when in fact he was not and terminated him as a result of his perceived disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The court rejected the company's contention that Wilson was laid off during a reduction in force necessitated by business conditions.
In January, the 4th Circuit upheld the decision, adding a new layer of complexity to a previous standard set by the Supreme Court regarding employee claims filed against an employer under the ADA.
"They are really splitting legal hairs here," says Nancy Delogu, shareholder
in Littler Mendelson. "The hair that is being split is whether he was being regarded as impaired and substantially limited or regarded as impaired but not substantially impaired."
The court concluded the employer regarded Wilson as disabled even though his impairment didn't limit a "major life activity," the standard for determining eligibility for ADA protection set in the 2002 Supreme Court case Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Ella Williams.
The departure from this standard split the court in Wilson, with Judge Paul V. Niemeyer arguing in dissent that the majority failed to strictly interpret Toyota. He said Phoenix's belief about Wilson's inability to perform specific job functions did not prove that the company regarded him as substantially limited in performing major life activities.
During the trial, Wilson's attorneys pointed to an e-mail Phoenix's president Robert Hurst sent to an associate stating Wilson "qualifies for ADA designation and we will have to consider accommodations." But when Wilson requested a larger computer screen and help with typing, his requests were denied.
While the court did not rule on the issue of whether the company violated Wilson's ADA rights by failing to provide accommodations, Delogu says the decision offers a road map of what employers should not do when trying to determine if an employee is disabled.
"It sounds like they kept close tabs on his medical status but didn't reach out to him to suggest ways he could do the work better," she says. "They weren't giving him the chance to perform with accommodations."
The takeaway, Delogu says, is the importance of dialogue when dealing with a potentially disabled employee. "It doesn't hurt to go through the interactive process even if you're not 100 percent sure the employee meets the standard for disablement," she says. "This decision signals [the court] is more willing to look very closely at what the employer did to ensure people who were disabled or perceived as disabled were provided accommodation under the law."
George Harper, a partner at Constangy Brooks & Smith who defended Phoenix while a partner at Jackson Lewis, says the decision abrogates strict construction of protection under the ADA for employers. "In this instance, there was no proof that Phoenix had a misconception of what Wilson's limitations are," he says. "This significantly broadens the protection of the individuals who can sue under the ADA in the 4th Circuit."
The use of e-mail by management when discussing Wilson's position boosted the plaintiff's case, Harper contends. "Any time a personal document or e-mail exchange is making reference to an employee's disability or limitation, you have a far greater chance of an employee filing a perceived disability claim in the 4th Circuit than you would before," he says.
But the larger issue, Harper says, is that the court did not strictly adhere to the Toyota standard for ADA cases. "Under the prior case law, for an individual to get past the first stage, he first had to prove the employer had a misconception that the plaintiff was limited in a major life activity," he says.
Bob Gregg, a partner with Boardman Law Firm in Madison, Wis., says management's actions preceding and immediately after Wilson's firing might have differed had management received better training or coordinated more closely with the human resources department. Gregg says this case demonstrates the need for more effective training of managers on the issue of perceived disability.
"If I were operating as counsel for a company that was doing layoffs, one normally takes a look at who's being laid off, and if anyone pops out as unusual--which this guy does--you've got a red flag there," he said. "That should have caught somebody's attention."