Fourth Circuit Clarifies Standard of Proof for Employment Claims Under the ADA

Gentry v. East West Partners Club Management Co. Inc., 816 F.3d 228 (4th Cir. 2016)

On March 4, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued its opinion in Gentry v. East West Partners Club Management Co. Inc., 816 F.3d 228 (2016). In Gentry, the Fourth Circuit rejected the argument that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) incorporates the lesser, “motivating factor” standard articulated in Title VII, and confirmed that the ADA requires a “but-for” standard.

In Gentry, Plaintiff was employed by Maggie Valley Resort Management (“Maggie Valley”), which had hired East West Partners Club Management Company, Inc. (“East West”) to run the resort. In 2007, during the course of her employment, Plaintiff fell and injured her ankle. She filed for workers’ compensation benefits, but later declined to settle the claim for fear that she would be retaliated against and terminated. In 2010, she was, in fact, terminated. East West contended that Plaintiff’s termination was due to a restructuring plan designed to cut costs, while Plaintiff alleged discrimination on the basis of a disability.

Plaintiff filed suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, alleging disability discrimination under the ADA as well as other violations of state and federal law. During the course of trial, Plaintiff testified that she had been informed by Maggie Valley’s executive that the general manager had admitted to terminating Plaintiff due to her disability. At the close of trial, the jury found in Plaintiff’s favor on some of the state law claims, but found in favor of East West on all other claims, including the ADA claim. On appeal, Plaintiff argued, inter alia, that the trial court incorrectly instructed the jury on the causation standard for disability discrimination. Plaintiff claimed that the correct standard was the Title VII “motivating factor” standard.

By way of background, Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 amended Title VII to include what is known as the “motivating factor” standard. This standard provides that “an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color, religion, sex or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m).

In Gentry, the Fourth Circuit held that the “motivating factor” standard was limited to Title VII claims. See Gentry, 816 F.3d at 235. In support, the Court explained that Title VII expressly provided for the “motivating factor” standard, but that the ADA did not. Id. at 234-36. This was particularly persuasive to the Court because at the time the “motivating factor” standard was added to Title VII, the same was omitted from the ADA, which was contemporaneously amended with Title VII. Id. at 234. Therefore, to prove disability discrimination under the ADA, the Fourth Circuit held that the ADA calls for a “but-for” standard, joining the Sixth and Seventh Circuits in adopting the heightened standard of proof for ADA claims. Id.

Going forward, practicing attorneys should be mindful of which standard of proof is applicable to their clients’ employment claims. With the Court’s holding in Gentry, employment claims in the Fourth Circuit will largely apply the more stringent “but for” standard, as provided in the chart below:

Employment Claim Causation Standard Authority
Title VII Motivating factor 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m)
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) But for

Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009)

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) But for

Gentry v. East West Partners Club Management Co. Inc., 816 F.3d 228 (4th Cir. 2016)

Retaliation But for

Guessous v. Fairview Property Investments, LLC, 828 F.3d 208 (4th Cir. 2016) (first citing Foster v. University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, 787 F.3d 243 (4th Cir. 2015); then citing University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, __ U.S. __, 133 S. Ct. 2517 (2013))

Depending on the claim, and, thus, the appropriate standard in a given case, attorneys should evaluate the potential for a dispositive motion, and conduct discovery with an eye towards developing grounds for summary judgment. In this regard, specific inquiries, whether by interrogatories or deposition questions, should be made regarding the causal connection between the adverse employment decisions at issue and the plaintiffs’ status within a protected class.