But What Did You Believe?

A recent Tenth Circuit opinion discusses what can happen when an employer’s mistake clashes with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Dewitt v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (10th Cir. 2017).

The Tenth Circuit evaluated the actions of an employer who fired an employee with diabetes. That employee, Janna DeWitt, made errors on the job that would have been terminable, but she alleged that the errors were a result of her disability. Her employer had been accommodating her disability by letting her take breaks to regulate her blood sugar, but on the day in question, her blood sugar dropped and she disconnected two customers while on the phone with them.

Her supervisor testified that she believed DeWitt dropped the calls intentionally, and the court declined to second-guess her judgment. The employer presented evidence and documentation showing why they thought the action was intentional. The court found that DeWitt failed to establish that the reasons for discharge were pretextual. Without evidence supporting her claim that the real reason she was fired was her disability, the court would not attempt to enter the mind of the employer to determine if its belief was sincere.

In effect, the court required DeWitt to present her evidence up front or it would not make any inferences about the state of mind of the employer. Additionally, the court found that it was “immaterial whether [the employer’s] belief was actually correct … What matters is that the [employer] honestly held that belief and acted on it in good faith.” Even if later evidence would have shown that DeWitt was suffering from low blood sugar, the employer’s actions would not have been second-guessed by the court.

The analysis that goes with this type of scenario is far from straightforward.  Please contact MSEC if you have any questions about an ADA issue in your business.