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Hearing officer restricted by anxiety disorder from interacting with juvenile detainees not disabled

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Interacting with juvenile detainees is a unique aspect of the single specific job of working as a hearing officer at a juvenile correctional center, explained the Seventh Circuit, finding that a juvenile detention center (JDC) hearing officer failed to show her anxiety disorder would prevent her from engaging in any other line of occupation. Accordingly, the appeals court affirmed summary judgment against her ADA claim. Summary judgment was also affirmed against her race and sex discrimination and retaliation claims (Carothers v. County of Cook, December 21, 2015, Bauer, W.).

Restriction. When the employee injured her hands during a physical altercation with a juvenile detainee, she went out on leave and filed for workers’ compensation. Several months later, she was released to return to work, but she was restricted from interacting with juvenile detainees. She ultimately returned to work in the hearing officer position, which required that she conduct due process hearings for juvenile detainees. Although she presented a letter from a counselor stating that due to the recent traumatic incident, it would be advisable for her to avoid working with children, she was directed to continue performing the job functions of a hearing officer.

After she fainted at work, she underwent a fitness-for-duty exam in which the evaluator found she should have no contact with residents. She was then referred to the pension board to apply for disability and was advised to research and apply for another job with the JDC. She failed to complete her disability application or return to work, however, and was fired for accumulating over 10 unauthorized absences. She later sued for disability discrimination in violation of the ADA and race and sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII.

ADA claim. The employee argued that her mental impairment, an anxiety disorder that was “exacerbated by exposure to and interactions with teenagers,” substantially limited her major life activity of working. While she presented evidence that the disorder prevented her from interacting with juvenile detainees at the JDC, the court found that interacting with juvenile detainees was a unique aspect of the single specific job of working as a hearing officer at a juvenile correctional center. Since the inability to interact with juvenile detainees did not restrict her from performing either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs, she failed to establish she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

Race discrimination. As to her race discrimination claim, she contended that under the direct method of proof an administrator’s comment to a group of employees that he would “take them to the woodshed,” his comment in her presence that Malcolm X was right that “black people should have their own stuff,” and the fact that a deputy administrator was sued for race discrimination in her previous employment created a convincing mosaic of discrimination. Disagreeing with the employee’s assertion that the “woodshed” comment had racist undertones, the court found it simply referred to punishing or reprimanding an individual. As to the Malcolm X comment, it was made three years before the employee’s termination and thus could not directly point to a discriminatory reason for her termination. Finally, there was no evidence that the assistant administrator who had purportedly been sued for race discrimination had anything to do with the decision to terminate the employee.

Nor was she able to defeat summary judgment under the indirect method of proof, said the appeals court, noting that she was not meeting legitimate employment expectations. At the time of her discharge, she had excessive absenteeism and was insubordinate: She refused to follow instructions regarding completing her disability application, and she did not schedule an appointment with medical to return to work. Nor was there evidence that the JDC treated similarly situated employees outside of the protected class more favorably.

Sex discrimination. Summary judgment was also affirmed against her sex discrimination claim. Not only did she fail to show she was meeting legitimate employment expectations at the time of her discharge, she supported her claim by noting only that two African-American male employees at the JDC were injured at work and were assigned to positions that involved no contact with juvenile detainees. She failed, however, to address the fact that both were assigned to the “Support Clerk” position, which was reserved solely for employees who have a substantial claim against them for abusing juvenile detainees but are ordered by a court to return to work. Accordingly, she was not similarly situated to either alleged comparator.

Retaliation. Finally, the court found her retaliation claim failed under the direct method of proof because she did not establish any causal link between her termination and her workers’ comp claim or a subsequent EEOC charge. While she asserted that the refusal to allow her to return to work after her injury, the lack of assigned responsibilities assigned on her first day back to work, the fact that items were missing from her desk, the reassignment to performing data entry functions, being precluded from participating in her department’s weekly meetings with the administrator, and the refusal to approve her requested time off for doctor’s appointments were all in retaliation for filing the worker’s comp claim, she failed to present any evidence connecting any of these perceived slights to that worker’s comp claim.

And while she argued that her employer retaliated against her after she filed her EEOC charge by preventing her from taking a test that was a prerequisite to applying for other jobs, she failed to cite to anything in the record that HR prevented her from taking the test. Nor was there any evidence that the HR director had anything to do with such a decision. Her uncorroborated speculation was not enough to prevent summary judgment, said the court.