Plaintiff Sufficiently Alleged Disability Discrimination; Allegations Regarding Qualification to Perform Job Were Not Contradictory

In Grant v. County of Erie (Summary Order), the Second Circuit vacated the dismissal, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), of plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Ordinarily, when reviewing the facial sufficiency of a federal court complaint to determine whether it states a claim, a trial court must accept all factual allegations as true.

However, there is an exception to this rule:  A court need not accept a complaint’s factual allegations “when attenuated allegations supporting the claim are contradicted by more specific allegations in the Complaint or when a claim is based on wholly conclusory and inconsistent allegations” – that is, when a complaint contradicts itself.

In order to succeed on her disability discrimination claim, plaintiff was required to plead (and ultimately prove) that s/he “was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job.”

Here, defendant argued, and the district court agreed, that plaintiff’s complaint contradicted itself as to whether plaintiff was qualified, and dismissed her complaint on that basis.

Specifically:

The district court determined that it need not accept as true Grant’s claim that a “fourth doctor … cleared [her] to return to work” because in the district court’s view this allegation was contradicted by that doctor’s (Dr. Bergeron’s) opinion “that it is not appropriate for her to return … to full duty [—] without restriction [—to] the type of work where she would have to restrain physically strong people.”  On that basis the district court granted the County’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a plausible claim of discrimination, reasoning that the complaint and the documents on which it relied did not establish that Grant was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job

The Second Circuit disagreed, pointing to the doctor’s finding that plaintiff was, indeed, “qualified” for purposes of the disability discrimination law:

Dr. Bergeron, however, found that Grant was qualified to perform the functions of her job. The report concludes that, “from an orthopedic stand point, … [Grant] could return to her regular work … [and] would be able to defend herself.” It is true that the report goes on to question whether it is “reasonable” to return her to work given her age and medical history and opines that this would not be “appropriate.” But Dr. Bergeron’s reason for raising these questions is concern that Grant may reinjure herself, not that she lacks the qualifications to perform her job. Dr. Bergeron’s report, accordingly, does not support the district court’s conclusion of Grant’s lack of qualification to perform her work duties. Because Dr. Bergeron’s report states that Grant is able to perform the essential functions of her job, it cannot serve as the basis for dismissing her claim of discrimination at this stage in the litigation. We thus vacate that portion of the judgment that dismisses the complaint on the ground that Grant is no longer qualified to return to her job.

This illustrates a subtle, yet critical point:  a doctor’s concern about whether it is “appropriate” for a worker to return to a job is not the same as a determination that the worker is not “qualified” to return to her job.

The court also held that the district court improperly dismissed plaintiff’s New York State law claims sua sponte – i.e., on its own – on the ground that plaintiff’s notice of claim was inadequate, since plaintiff did not have sufficient notice of the grounds for dismissal:

[T]he County did not assert inadequate notice of claim as an affirmative defense, nor did the County advance an argument to this effect in its principal memorandum or reply memorandum in support of its motion to dismiss. By raising the issue sua sponte and determining the motion to be “fully briefed and oral argument unnecessary,” the district court denied Grant notice and an opportunity to be heard on the very ground on which it ultimately dismissed the state law claims. For that reason, the district court erred in dismissing Grant’s New York state law discrimination and retaliation claims for failure to file and serve a notice of claims.

Finally, the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s retaliation claim, since plaintiff failed to show that she engaged in a protected activity that resulted in retaliation.

Even if her EEOC charge was a protected activity, she could not demonstrate the necessary element of causation.  She “made no complaints directly to the County, nor did she make any complaints about any discrimination by the County prior to her filing a charge with the EEOC on July 16, 2010” and “[h]er adverse job action had already taken place months before she filed the discrimination charge with the EEOC.”

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