Claim for compensatory damages under ADA survived employee’s death

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By Joy Waltemath

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

An employee’s claim for compensatory damages under the ADA survived his death, ruled the Eighth Circuit, joining its sister circuits in allowing the individual’s estate to bring and maintain a suit for compensatory damages in place of the aggrieved party. Because ADA claims specifically involve disabled plaintiffs alleging they were discriminated against because of their disability, abatement of compensatory ADA claims poses “a special threat to enforcement.” As a result, the appeals court concluded that federal common law does not incorporate state law to determine whether an ADA claim for compensatory damages survives or abates upon the death of the aggrieved party (Guenther v. Griffin Construction Co., Inc., January 19, 2017, Riley, W.).

In the spring of 2012, the employee was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He requested and received roughly three weeks’ leave from work to receive treatment, and he returned to work when it appeared the treatment was successful. However, in 2013, the employee learned the cancer had spread throughout his body. He notified the employer that he would need to take another three weeks’ leave to undergo radiation therapy. Instead, the company fired him and told him he could reapply for any openings in the future if he wished. It also immediately cancelled his insurance policies.

Thereafter, the employee filed a timely charge of discrimination with the EEOC. However, he died before the administrative process was complete. In May 2015—roughly 22 months after the employee was fired, 20 months after he filed his charge, and 12 months after he passed away—the EEOC issued its right-to-sue letter. The administrator of the employee’s estate filed suit under the ADA and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act. In response, the employer filed a motion to dismiss, contending that the employee’s claims did not survive his death. The district court adopted the Arkansas tort survival statute as the federal rule of decision, agreed that the employee’s ADA claim abated at his death, and entered judgment for the employer.

Survival of claim. Whether a federal claim survives is a question of federal law. The ADA is silent on the claim-survival issue, and “[t]here is no general survival statute for federal-question cases.” The question here was whether to adopt state law or create a uniform federal rule. Contrary to the district court’s opinion, the Eighth Circuit was convinced that the relevant considerations weighed in favor of a uniform rule of survivability. Accordingly, it reversed the judgment of the district court.

As an initial matter, the appeals court observed that state law should not be incorporated where doing so would “frustrate specific objectives of the federal programs.” So what did Congress say? Congress declared its interest in passing the ADA was to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate” with “clear, strong, consistent, [and] enforceable standards” to address the “serious and pervasive social problem” of disability-based discrimination on a case-by-case basis.

Health issue. The appeals court was not persuaded by the employer’s argument that allowing the employee’s claim to abate under Arkansas law did not frustrate this national mandate. The court observed that in the ADA, Congress has not given any indication for an expressed preference for state law. Rather, it agreed with the employee’s estate that abatement of compensatory ADA claims poses “a special threat to enforcement.” This is because the very nature of the ADA makes it more likely the aggrieved party will die before the case is complete given the health issue which brings him or her under the statute’s protection.

ADA claims specifically involve disabled plaintiffs alleging they were discriminated against because of their disability. Congress passed the ADA to eradicate discrimination against disabled persons, some of whom may be targeted precisely because of their poor health. A state law allowing claims to abate when the aggrieved party dies impedes this broad remedial purpose.

Uniform standards. The court also found that state law was unsuited to fill a gap in federal law “when the scheme in question evidences a distinct need for nationwide legal standards.” In this instance, the ADA embodies Congress’s attempt to create a “comprehensive national mandate” where “the Federal Government plays a central role” in enforcing “consistent” standards. A uniform rule would not require fashioning an entire body of law out of whole cloth. And allowing claims to survive would not upset the employer-employee balance struck by state laws, because federal law, and many state laws, already prohibit discrimination.

Finding that the employee’s ADA claim for compensatory damages survived his death, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the employer was not entitled to judgment on the pleadings. The district court decision was reversed.

Source:: Claim for compensatory damages under ADA survived employee’s death


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