Stroke Victim Adequately Alleges Disability Discrimination and Retaliation Claims Under the Americans With Disabilities Act

In Graham v. Women in Need, Inc., 13-cv-07063 (May 30, 2014), the Southern District of New York denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims of disability discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Facts

Here are the facts, as alleged by plaintiff:

Plaintiff is a former employee of WIN, a not-for-profit corporation organized under the laws of New York. Plaintiff began working at WIN in 2006 as a “Shift Supervisor,” and was promoted in 2009 to “Residential Aide to Shift Supervisor.” On August 13, 2011, Plaintiff suffered a stroke, and was hospitalized for approximately two to three weeks. Upon her return to work, Plaintiff requested that Defendants provide her reasonable accommodations to facilitate her recuperation. The various requests for accommodation were detailed in a letter provided by Plaintiff’s doctor, and included limiting Plaintiff’s work week to forty hours and refraining from assigning tasks that involved lifting or picking up heavy objects. Defendants did not change Plaintiff’s work schedule or otherwise agree to her requests for reasonable accommodation, requiring Plaintiff to work a sixty-hour week.

Defendants’ discriminatory conduct intensified when Defendant Hall became Program Director. Upon taking up the Program Director position, Hall greeted Plaintiff by asking her whether she was “the lady with the stroke.” On or about January 16, 2012, Plaintiff suffered a second stroke. Defendants responded by “pressuring” her to return to work eight days after the stroke. When she returned to work, Plaintiff again presented Defendants with a doctor’s note requesting various accommodations, including limiting her work week and physical activity on the job. Defendants disregarded Plaintiff’s requests, maintaining her schedule of approximately sixty hours a week and requiring her to perform tasks that involved physical activity, such as lifting objects and making additional rounds during her shifts. Hall and McLaughlin told Plaintiff she should resign if she could not work full time. Several months after her second stroke, in April 2012, Hall informed Plaintiff that he was intentionally assigning her more work so that she would “just go out,” implying that Plaintiff should quit her job. Around the end of November 2012, Plaintiff reported Hall’s discriminatory conduct to Wadkins, who told Plaintiff that she would investigate the allegations. Wadkins did not follow up with Plaintiff.

On or about December 9, 2012, Plaintiff was stabbed in the street, and spent thirty days recuperating from the assault. While Plaintiff was recuperating, she received a call from a coworker, warning her that she would likely be placed on administrative leave as a result of reporting discriminatory conduct. On or about January 8, 2013, Plaintiff informed Defendants that she was ready to return to work, and was told to come in for a meeting the following day. The next day, Plaintiff attended a meeting with Wadkins and the Vice President of WIN, and was told that she was being placed on paid administrative leave because a client had accused her and another individual of forcing the client to lodge a complaint against Hall. Plaintiff requested copies of the client’s complaint on two occasions, but did not receive a copy. On or around January 15, 2013, and after her second request to see the complaint, Plaintiff attended another meeting with Wadkins, where she was discharged. At the meeting, Wadkins told Plaintiff that she should “concentrate on [her] health,” now that she was unemployed.

Pleading Employment Discrimination Claims

The court summarized the pleading standard applicable to employment discrimination cases:

On a motion to dismiss in an employment discrimination case, a plaintiff is not required to plead a prima facie case of discrimination[.] Instead, at a minimum, employment discrimination claims must meet the standard of pleading set forth in [the Supreme Court’s decisions] in Twombly and Iqbal, even if pleading a prima facie case is not required. [T]he elements of a prima facie case, however, provide an outline of what is necessary to render [a plaintiff’s employment discrimination or retaliation] claims for relief plausible. Accordingly, courts have consider[ed] these elements in determining whether there is sufficient factual matter in the complaint which, if true, gives Defendant fair notice of Plaintiff’s claim and the grounds on which it rests.

Generally, a plaintiff can establish disability discrimination under two theories: (1) failure to provide reasonable accommodations and/or (2) discriminatory termination.

Failure to Accommodate

First, the court held that plaintiff’s “failure to accommodate” claim was time-barred. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the rejection of an accommodation request is a “‘discrete act’ with its own statute of limitations of 300 days for filing a complaint before the EEOC.” Plaintiff didn’t file her EEOC complaint until more than 300 days after requesting an accommodation.

However, her discriminatory termination claim was timely, since she filed her EEOC charge within 300 days of her discharge.

Discriminatory Termination

As to the merits, the court held that plaintiff stated a sufficient claim for discriminatory termination.

In relevant part, the Americans with Disabilities Act

prohibits employment discrimination against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to … [the] discharge of employees. To establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that: (1) her employer is subject to the ADA, (2) she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (3) she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, and (4) she suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability.

The parties did not dispute the first three elements of the prima facie test. As to to element four, the court held that plaintiff’s complaint

sufficiently pleads facts giving rise to an inference that Plaintiff was terminated because of her disability. The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff suffered two strokes during the course of her employment with Defendants; that the strokes were the subject of contention between Plaintiff and Defendants, who refused Plaintiff’s requests for accommodation and in fact went out of their way to create less accommodating conditions by requiring her to work long hours, lift and carry objects, and perform substantially more rounds; and that Defendants specifically referenced Plaintiff’s health when discharging her, telling her to “concentrate on [her] health,” now that she was unemployed.

The court rejected defendants’ argument that plaintiff’s alleged misconduct was a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for plaintiff’s termination. Under the ADA, “a plaintiff is not required to plead that discrimination was the sole reason for the discharge; rather, the ADA is applicable to situations in which discrimination on the basis of disability is one factor, but not the only factor, motivating an adverse employment action decision.”

Here, “[b]ecause the Complaint sufficiently pleads that Plaintiff’s discharge was motivated at least in part by discrimination relating to her disability, Defendants’ argument fails. (Emphasis added.)


The court also held that plaintiff stated a sufficient claim for retaliation under the ADA.

Here is the law:

The ADA prohibits retaliation against any individual because such individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by th[e] [ADA] … or made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this chapter.

To establish a prima facie case for retaliation, a plaintiff must show that (1) she was engaged in an activity protected by the ADA; (2) her employer was aware of that activity; (3) an employment action adverse to the plaintiff occurred; and (4) there existed a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. Seeking reasonable accommodation for a disability constitutes a “protected activity,” and retaliation in response to a plaintiff’s request for reasonable accommodation may violate the ADA’s prohibition on retaliation. …

A causal relationship between the protected activity and the alleged retaliatory act can be established in one of two ways: (1) indirectly, by showing that the protected activity was followed closely by discriminatory [or retaliatory] treatment, or through other circumstantial evidence such as disparate treatment of fellow employees who engaged in similar conduct; or (2) directly, through evidence of retaliatory animus directed against the plaintiff by defendant. Direct evidence of a causal relationship can consist of documents or statements that “reflect or suggest” such a relationship. (Paragraphing added)

Applying these principles, the court held:

Drawing all inferences in Plaintiff’s favor, the Complaint sufficiently pleads a claim for unlawful retaliation. It alleges that Plaintiff was engaged in a protected activity-requesting reasonable accommodation; that Defendants were aware that Plaintiff was engaged in such an activity, since they were the recipients of her request; that Plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action in the form of her termination; and that there was direct evidence of a causal relationship between Plaintiff’s requests for accommodation and her discharge, in the form of Hall’s statement during the termination meeting that Plaintiff should “concentrate on [her] health.”

The court rejected defendants’ argument “that the Complaint fails to establish a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action because there is no temporal proximity between Plaintiff’s second and last request for accommodation, in January 2012, and her discharge, in January 2013”, reasoning that “[b]ecause the Complaint sets forth direct evidence of a causal relationship in the form of Hall’s statement, it is unnecessary to consider whether the Complaint also provides indirect evidence of a causal relationship through temporal proximity.”

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