The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Dewitt v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Company on Wednesday, January 18, 2017.
After her employment was terminated by Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (SWBTC) in 2010, Janna Dewitt filed a lawsuit against her former employer claiming unlawful discrimination and failure to accommodate her disability in violation of the American Disability Act, as well as a retaliation claim in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of SWBTC on all three claims, and Dewitt appealed.
Dewitt worked as a customer service representative in the call center of SWBTC. When Dewitt was hired she disclosed her diagnosis of Type I diabetes to her employer, who allowed her to take breaks as needed to eat and check her insulin levels. During Dewitt’s employment she took FMLA leave occasionally for health reasons, but generally avoided taking FMLA leave as it was looked upon unfavorably by SWBTC. After Dewitt violated SWBTC’s company policy for a second time by hanging up on two customers, SWBTC initiated a review and ultimately terminated Dewitt. Dewitt contends that she does not recall hanging up on the customers, as she was experiencing dangerously low blood sugar levels.
The court applied the burden-shifting framework first laid out in McDonnell-Douglas Corp. v. Green, which articulates a three-prong test for evaluating employment claims: (1) the claimant must show a prima facie case of retaliation or discrimination; (2) if the claimant presents a prima facie case, then if the employer can show a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the action against the employee, the burden shifts back to the claimant to show that (3) there is a genuine issue of material fact as to if the employer’s reason for the action was merely pretext.
As to Dewitt’s first claim that SWBTC terminated her because of her disability, the court affirms the district court’s grant of summary judgment. The court looked to SWBTC’s process in evaluating the hang-ups, and stated that SWBTC’s termination was made based on their honest belief and in good faith due to Dewitt’s conduct, not because of her disability. Dewitt requests that the court decline to apply the honest belief doctrine, claiming that it “eviscerates the third prong of the McDonnell-Douglas test.” The court declines to do so, stating that the honest belief doctrine works to allow the employee to challenge the honesty of the employer’s stated reasoning for the action against the employee.
Next, Dewitt claims that SWBTC failed to accommodate her disability by not excusing the dropped phone calls. The court affirms the grant of summary judgment as to this claim as well, stating that an employer is not required to retroactively accommodate a disability where the employee has not previously requested an accommodation, and Dewitt never raised the concern prior to the incident with SWBTC that her diabetes could cause her to drop calls. The court added that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s own guidance refutes Dewitt’s claim that her past conduct should be overlooked, as the guidance states “an employer is not required to excuse past misconduct even if it is the result of the individual’s disability.”
Finally, regarding Dewitt’s third claim of retaliation by SWBTC against her for taking FMLA leave, the court also affirms the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of SWBTC. The court held that because SWBTC offered a legitimate reason for terminating Dewitt, her hanging up on customers, Dewitt was required to show that this reason was mere pretext for firing her due to her disability. While Dewitt offered testimony that FMLA leave was discouraged and another supervisor disliked her, neither witness was involved in her actual termination. Therefore, the court determined that Dewitt’s evidence did not sufficiently establish a question as to if SWBTC’s stated reason for terminating her was merely pretext to terminate her employment due to her disability.
The court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on all three of Dewitt’s employment claims.