August 23, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Discrimination Claims Fail Where Plaintiff Cannot Perform Essential Job Function

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Hawkins v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. on Thursday, February 19, 2015.

David Hawkins was a facility supervisor for Schwan’s Home Service (SHS), in which position he was occasionally required to drive company delivery trucks but mainly was responsible for ordering products, scheduling, and loading trucks. In 2010, Hawkins began experiencing severe health problems and was repeatedly hospitalized with heart problems. He had a mild stroke in June 2010 but returned to work shortly after. Hawkins’ supervisor, Mr. Hillaker, began assigning truck driving duties to Hawkins and communicated to several coworkers that Hawkins was “a liability.”

On June 21, 2010, Hawkins failed a routine DOT medical evaluation and did not receive the DOT certification required of all SHS supervisors. The next day, Hawkins received a letter that he was being placed on a 30-day unpaid leave, and he had 30 days to receive the certification or find a non-DOT position. On June 23, 2010, Hawkins signed a voluntary termination form but wrote on the form that he was forced to quit for medical reasons. He filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, bringing claims under the ADAAA, the Oklahoma ADA, and asserting a Burk tort. The district court granted summary judgment to SHS and Hawkins timely appealed.

The Tenth Circuit evaluated Hawkins’ claims as disparate treatment claims, and noted Hawkins must show that at the time he was terminated: (1) he was disabled as defined by statute, (2) he was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodations, and (3) he was fired because of his disability. The Tenth Circuit found Hawkins’ discrimination claims failed at step two, because he was unable to obtain the DOT certification and it was an essential job function.

Hawkins disputed the district court’s determination that driving a company truck was an “essential function” of a supervisor’s job, and asserted the district court incorrectly allocated burdens between the parties. The Tenth Circuit discussed “burdens” at length, noting that the term was tricky, but Tenth Circuit precedent required the plaintiff at all times to bear the burden of persuasion. Hawkins also argued the district court erroneously conflated the terms “qualification” and “function,” but the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, finding the district court’s opinion was well-reasoned and thoughtfully followed Tenth Circuit precedent.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to SHS.

Colorado Supreme Court: Burden of Proof Does Not Shift Under Res Ipsa Loquitur

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Chapman, M.D. v. Harner on Monday, December 8, 2014.

Allocation of the Burden of Proof Under Res Ipsa Loquitur.

In this case, the Supreme Court clarified the proper allocation of the burden of proof under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Specifically, the Court resolved the tension between its fifty-six-year-old precedent in Weiss v. Axler, 137 Colo. 544, 559, 328 P.2d 88, 96-97 (1958), which held that the burden of proof shifts to the defendant once a plaintiff makes a prima facie showing of res ipsa loquitur, and the more recent adoption of CRE 301, which indicates that rebuttable presumptions such as res ipsa loquitur shift onto the defendant only the burden of production and not the burden of proof. After determining that this issue has remained unsettled since the adoption of CRE 301, the Court held that the burden of proof does not shift to the defendant under res ipsa loquitur. Accordingly, the Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.