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Oct. 26 — A family practice physician for an Illinois health-care provider who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and fired after he didn't return to work despite being cleared for duty lacks an Americans with Disabilities Act bias claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held.
Affirming summary judgment to Proctor Health Care Inc., the Seventh Circuit found that Larry Hooper failed to show that Proctor discriminated against him on the basis of his disorder. For example, he identified no similarly situated non-disabled employees who were more favorably treated, and didn't rebut the reason for his termination as pretextual, it said.
In so ruling, the appeals court continued to question the use of separate direct and indirect methods of proving discrimination—a stance the court has taken since 2012 (04 DLR AA-1, 1/6/12). The court again advocated a simpler analysis that instead focuses on whether a jury could reasonably infer bias, as it has done in recent cases (111 DLR A-2, 6/10/15); (191 DLR A-2, 10/1/13).
Additionally, the appeals court held that Hooper can't proceed with an ADA failure-to-accommodate claim because he didn't include any facts for such a claim in his complaint against Proctor.
Judge Sara L. Ellis wrote the Oct. 26 opinion, joined by Judges Michael S. Kanne and Diane S. Sykes.
The Seventh Circuit explained that employees can prove their disabilities discrimination claims under direct or indirect methods.
Under the direct method, an employee must show that he was disabled under the ADA, he was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation and he was fired because of his disability.
By contrast, the indirect method requires employees and employers to engage in a burden-shifting analysis that generally turns on whether the employee can establish an inference of discrimination and rebut as pretextual any nondiscriminatory explanation offered by the employer to justify any adverse actions.
Although it has questioned the utility of analyzing discrimination claims under direct and indirect methods, the court said it continues to do so for summary judgment determinations. It added, however, that the “ultimate question” under either method is whether a reasonable jury could find prohibited discrimination.
In the present case, the court found that Hooper's arguments “do not neatly fit into either the direct or indirect method,” but that he ultimately failed to establish that Proctor discriminated against him based on his disability.
The appeals court observed that Hooper identified no similarly situated, non-disabled comparators who received better treatment. Furthermore, it said Hooper failed to sufficiently challenge the stated reason for his termination—that is, his failure to return to work after a psychiatrist cleared him for duty.
“If anything, the evidence shows that Proctor acted quickly to bring Hooper back to work once it learned his bipolar disorder did not pose any harm to Hooper, Proctor staff, or patients, and only terminated him when he failed to return to work after numerous efforts to contact him,” the court said. “This does not suggest discriminatory motive.”
Hooper argued that a human resources director's comment to him that she had a contentious relationship with her bipolar mother-in-law pointed to discriminatory motive.
But the court said the stray remark doesn't support his claim because it was made four months before his discharge and Hooper hasn't pointed to any causal links between the comment and his termination.
The Seventh Circuit also upheld the dismissal of Hooper's failure-to-accommodate claim.
Hooper didn't include any facts in his complaint about how a psychiatrist had purportedly provided recommendations on how Proctor could help Hooper experience less stress, the court said. As such, the complaint had no facts to put Proctor on notice that Hooper was alleging a failure-to-accommodate claim, it said.
The court rejected Hooper's argument that merely invoking discrimination under the ADA, which includes the word “accommodation” in its definition of qualified individuals with disabilities, is sufficient notice to Proctor.
Even if Hooper had preserved his failure-to-accommodate claim, the court said it would still fail because the psychiatrist had cleared Hooper to return to work without accommodations despite the stress-reduction recommendations.
Nicoara & Steagall represented Hooper. Davis & Campbell represented Proctor.
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Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/LARRY_HOOPER_MD_Plaintiff_Appellant_v_PROCTOR_HEALTH_CARE_INC_Def.
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