Favorite Firing: When Will a Sympathetic Plaintiff Nevertheless Lose His Case?


club-2492011_640Being a judge is often a difficult role. In one recent case, Sepúlveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC (1st Cir. April 30, 2018), the First Circuit Court of Appeals clearly struggled with how the strict language of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) impacted a sympathetic plaintiff. The first paragraph of the Court’s opinion contains the statement:

“No matter how sympathetic the plaintiff or how harrowing his plights, the law is the law and sometimes it’s just not on his side.”

The Facts: Plaintiff Victor A. Sepúlveda-Vargas was an assistant manager for a Burger King franchise owned by defendant Caribbean Restaurants, LLC, in Puerto Rico. Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas was attacked at gunpoint one day while making a bank deposit for his employer, and thereafter suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.

Plaintiff requested a transfer to a restaurant in an area less subject to crime and also requested a fixed work schedule (rather than the rotating shift required for all assistant managers at Caribbean Restaurants). His managers accommodated plaintiff’s request for a while, but later determined they could not continue to accommodate the requests. Thereafter, Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas resigned. Thus, this is technically a constructive discharge case, rather than a firing.

The District Court concluded that Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas was not a qualified individual under the ADA, and therefore did not need to be accommodated. The lower court also concluded that the defendant employer had not retaliated against the plaintiff to create a hostile work environment justifying his resignation. As a result of these findings, the District Court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Specifically, the District Court found that working rotating shifts was an essential function of the assistant manager job with Caribbean, and, since Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas could not work rotating shifts, he could not perform the essential functions of the job and was therefore not a qualified individual under the ADA.

The District Court recognized that even if the plaintiff was not a qualified individual under the ADA, the employer was obligated by law not to retaliate against the plaintiff for raising an ADA claim. Then the District Court addressed a long list of alleged retaliatory acts. The District Court stated that these did not rise to the level of actionable behavior by the employer.

A panel of three judges on the First Circuit looked at the alleged retaliatory behavior de novo, but agreed with the lower court’s findings. Thus, Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas did not state a viable claim against Caribbean Restaurants, and the First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling against Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas.

The Moral: To be frank, if the District Court or Circuit Court had really wanted to, I think the judges could have ruled in Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas’s favor, at least on the retaliation claim. Among the allegations made were that Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas was scolded for requesting an accommodation, that he was forced to drop his pants to prove to his manager that he had a skin condition, and that he was called a “cry-baby” several times by his supervisors, . . .

While the District and Circuit judges in this case explained their rationale for not finding these allegations to amount to an actionable case for retaliation, other judges have found retaliation on facts no worse than those Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas alleged.

From an employer’s perspective, it is heartening to see both a trial court and an appellate court follow the statutory language of the ADA in finding that an employee has not stated a cause of action. The judges gave the employer great deference in designing the job requirements for its assistant managers. It is also heartening to see the judges parse through allegations of retaliation and conclude that the alleged behavior was insufficient to support a constructive discharge case.

In this case, the First Circuit stated:

“Not all retaliatory actions, however, suffice to meet the ADA’s anti-retaliation provision. Rather, ‘a plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’ [citations omitted] Indeed, we have explained that ‘[f]or retaliatory action to be material, it must produce “a significant, not trivial harm,”’ [citations omitted], and that ‘actions like “petty slights, minor annoyances, and simple lack of good manners will not [normally] create such deterrence.”‘ [citations omitted]

But these cases often boil down to questions of fact. The decision could go either way, depending on the decision-maker. So this case is a strong reminder that employers should (1) engage in a respectful dialogue with an employee who requests an accommodation and (2) avoid retaliatory behavior after the request for an accommodation is made, whether it is accepted or denied.

When have you seen an employer prevail in a retaliation claim?

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