In a recent case, the Fourth Circuit found for the employer, holding the former employee couldn’t establish his claims of hostile work environment or wrongful termination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Here, the court determined that the employee was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA and couldn’t establish sufficiently severe or pervasive harassment to succeed on his claims. Important in this case was the employee’s own admissions in his Complaint and subsequent definitions that he was unable to work at the time of his termination.
Jessup v. Barnes Group, Inc.
In 2000, Jeffrey Jessup began working as a regional sales manager for a subsidiary of the Barnes Group, Inc. (“Barnes”) and eventually became a business development manager. Jessup claimed he experienced “significant” stress in the position and suffered a panic attack in October 2016. Following his panic attack, he was granted a leave of absence through June 13, 2017. Jessup argues he was subjected to discriminatory treatment and a hostile work environment upon his return to work.
Upon return to work, Jessup’s supervisor informed Jessup his previous position had been eliminated and he would be placed in a new position, which he viewed as a demotion. The new position had the same salary and benefits, but had a different incentive compensation program. On a conference call shortly after, Jessup noticed that his previous position was listed as “open” rather than eliminated. Jessup’s sales quota was also raised by $2 million, which he claimed had never happened to any of his colleagues. Jessup believed this increase was implemented to make him fall below his plan and provide a reason to put him on a performance improvement plan or terminate him.
On July 19, 2017 Jessup suffered another panic attack and requested leave through October 18, 2017, but his request was denied and he was instructed to return to work by August 24, 2017. Jessup sent another request for leave on October 17, 2017, but on November 17, Barnes’ attorney sent Jessup’s attorney a letter stating that Barnes had “decided to deny [Jessup’s] request for additional leave and terminate [his] employment.” The letter also stated that based on Jessup’s latest leave request, it was “clear that he cannot return to work and perform the essential functions of his job, with or without accommodation.”
Jessup then filed an action against Barnes alleging wrongful termination, failure to accommodate, and a hostile work environment. In his complaint, Jessup alleged that Barnes’ treatment of him after he returned to work in April 2017 caused him to relapse and that he “has not been able to recover from this debilitating relapse into severe anxiety and major depression, and is now fully and completely disable[d] and unable to work.” During a deposition, when Barnes’ attorney asked Jessup when he became completely disabled and unable to work, Jessup stated: “I think after the events, the hostile events that occurred between April 3 or 1st . . . until I went out on leave again on [July] 19th.” The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Barnes, finding Jessup failed to show that he was a “qualified individual” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
Wrongful Termination and Failure-to-Accommodate
For a successful wrongful termination or failure-to-accommodate claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must establish that he is a “qualified individual.” Under the ADA, a “qualified individual” is “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”
The court here also noted that “[a] party is bound by the admissions of his [or her] pleadings.” Relevant here, in Jessup’s complaint and subsequent deposition testimony, he admitted that at the time Barnes fired him, he could not perform the essential functions of his job. Specifically, Jessup claimed that after his relapse in July 2017, he “has not been able to recover from this debilitating relapse into severe anxiety and major depression, and is now fully and completely disable[d] and unable to work.” According to Jessup’s own admissions, he had been “unable to work” since his relapse and he failed to suggest any reasonable accommodation that would have allowed him to do so. Thus, Jessup was unable to show that he could perform the essential functions of his job at the time Barnes fired him. The court here concluded that “Jessup’s statement in his complaint and subsequent confirmation of that statement in his deposition thus constitute deliberate, clear, and unambiguous admissions as to a material fact, defeating Jessup’s contention that he was a ‘qualified individual’ for ADA purposes.”
Hostile Work Environment
Jessup also alleged a hostile work environment. To establish a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must show that: “(1) he is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) he was subjected to unwelcome harassment; (3) the harassment was based on his disability; (4) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter a term, condition, or privilege of employment; and (5) some factual basis exists to impute liability for the harassment to the employer.” At issue here, is whether the conduct Jessup was subjected to was “sufficiently severe or pervasive.” To show that conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive, a plaintiff “must demonstrate not only that he subjectively perceived his workplace environment as hostile, but also that a reasonable person would so perceive it, i.e., that it was objectively hostile.” To make this determination, a court considers “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.”
Jessup alleged five actions establish his claim; Tim Haller, the president of Engineered Components at Barnes, declined a meeting with Jessup shortly before his return to work in February 2017; upon returning to work in April 2017, Jessup was told his position had been eliminated and he was moved to another position with a different incentive program, but the company listed his previous position as “open” instead of eliminated; upon returning to work in April 2017, Jessup’s supervisor gave him a “Below Expectations” in his 2016 performance evaluation for not completing certain work while he was out on leave; in May 2017, Haller told Jessup he would have been a “risk” in his old position because he could have had “a heart attack or stroke;” and in 2017, Barnes increased Jessup’s sales quota by $2 million.
Jessup argued that the above events and statements “occurred in the context of efforts by Jessup’s supervisors and corporate human resources guided by Barnes’ General Counsel to build a case for discharge against [him].” However, the court determined that even viewed together, the statements and events were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to establish a hostile work environment. The court noted that there is no evidence that Jessup knew about several of the above communications when he worked at Barnes, “so those communications cannot have contributed to his perception of a hostile environment.” The court clarified that “statements or acts of which a plaintiff was unaware could of course be relevant to the separate question of whether the plaintiff experienced harassment on the basis of his disability, but they cannot show that a reasonable person would perceive his environment as objectively hostile at that time.”
While the court found these statements and events indicate that Jessup’s supervisors did not want him to keep working at Barnes, “there simply is not sufficient evidence of which Jessup was aware at the time to establish an objectively reasonable perception of a hostile work environment.”
Since Jessup was not able to establish that he was a qualified individual under the ADA or that he suffered sufficiently severe or pervasive harassment, the court here affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Barnes.
What Does Jessup v. Barnes Group, Inc. Mean for Employers?
Here, the court primarily focused on whether or not Jessup was a “qualified individual” under the ADA. The court’s final determination that Jessup wasn’t a qualified individual was largely a result of Jessup’s own statements that he was unable to work at the time of his termination, with or without an accommodation. This highlights the importance of employee statements and timelines regarding their ability to work due to their disabilities. Since parties are bound by the statements they make in their pleadings, Jessup’s admissions in his Complain were ultimately used to determine that he was not a qualified individual.
The court’s analysis here of Jessup’s hostile work environment claim can also be instructive for employers. While these cases are each decided on a base-by-case basis, the court’s determination about whether or not certain conduct constitutes “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to establish a successful claim can be used as a guide for employers in similar positions. Of note here, many of the claims Jessup used to support his claim were based on conduct he wasn’t aware of at the time he was employed. The court held that while such conduct can be relevant to the separate question of whether the employee experienced harassment on the basis of his disability, they cannot show that a reasonable person would perceive his environment as objectively hostile at that time, if the individual was unaware of that conduct.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 703-782-3266. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.