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Court Allows Disabled Older Worker to Take Her Case to Trial

A federal court ruled that an age discrimination case should not have been summarily dismissed.

Background

Mary Godwin began working for WellStar Health Systems in May 1999. In April 2010, Cherise Brown became Godwin’s direct supervisor. Within six months Brown put Godwin on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) due to alleged defects in her job performance.

 In February 2011, Godwin provided a doctor’s note stating that her rheumatoid arthritis prohibited her from sitting for more than an hour at a time, and Godwin asked for accommodations, especially an opportunity to get up and walk every hour or so. Godwin alleged that Brown instead imposed onerous and embarrassing restrictions, such as requiring Godwin to ask permission to leave her desk at any time, even before using the restroom. Brown later sought to excuse these limits, explaining that Godwin was allowed to stand up at her desk once an hour.

Godwin also complained to her human resources department in March 2011 that Brown was making discriminatory age-related statements about Godwin. These included asking why Godwin was still working at her age, declaring Godwin “should have made provisions for being out of work when she was young,” and referring to putting Godwin “out to pasture.” In May 2011, following another PIP review, Godwin was fired by vice president Tony Trupiano.

Godwin sued, alleging her termination was the result of discrimination of the basis of age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), including its anti-retaliation provisions. She also alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

A trial court ruled against Godwin without hearing live trial testimony, holding that there was no evidence that her ADEA claims in any way motivated the decision to terminate her, even though Trupiano testified in a deposition that he had not verified Brown’s assessments and recommendation that Godwin be fired, and that “but for” Brown’s recommendation, he would not have fired Godwin.

AARP filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the appeal of the case, arguing that the district court should have allowed the matter to proceed to trial. AARP’s brief urged that this was precisely the sort of case in which an employer (WellStar) legitimately could be held responsible for the unbiased acts of a decisionmaker (Trupiano) who relied too much on the biased recommendation of a subordinate supervisor (Brown). In such cases, the unbiased decisionmaker is said to enable unlawful discrimination by acting as the “Cat’s Paw” - after an old French fable in which a mischievous monkey persuades an unwitting cat to do its bidding by rescuing treasure from a fire. AARP directed the appeals court’s attention to U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2009 in Gross v. FBL Financial Services and 2011 in Staub v. Proctor Hospital.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed with AARP. “A plaintiff may establish … causation if she shows that the unbiased decision-maker….followed a ‘biased recommendation without independently investigating the complaint against the employee.’” Noting the timing of the dismissal (after Godwin had filed a complaint with human resources), the evidence of discriminatory statements made, and Trupiano’s admitted failure to independently verify Brown’s complaints, the court ruled that Godwin should have the opportunity to take the case to trial. Disturbingly, however, the Court of Appeals refused to reinstate Godwin’s disability bias claim despite Brown’s cruel treatment of Godwin’s requests for accommodation of her mobility impairment.

What’s at Stake

AARP has long fought to ensure the protections promised by age and disability anti-discrimination laws. AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s briefs in Gross and Staub and have been following its their aftermath in the courts.

Case Status

Godwin v. WellStar was decided by the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.