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).
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.