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Disability Discrimination Claim by State Employee

Jessica Whitfield v. State of Tennessee, (6th Cir., March 25, 2011). Jessica Whitfield sued her state government employer for both equitable relief and damages under Titles I and II of the ADA for disability discrimination. The district court dismissed her claim under Title I based on the Supreme Court's decision in Board of Trustees v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001) that held that Title I did not abrogate a state's sovereign immunity from suits for monetary damages. The district court did not address Whitfield's Title II claim before dismissing the entire action.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court's disposition of the Title I claim as to the recovery of monetary damages against the state. However, the court disagreed with the lower court's dismissal of the Title I claim regarding Whitfield's claim for job reinstatement because that was a form of equitable relief that she should have been allowed to pursue based on the doctrine enunciated in Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908). The court, however, concluded that Whitfield abandoned her claim under Title II of the ADA because she did not address it in her brief on appeal. The court continued to review Whitfield's appeal on her Title I appeal.

First, the court clarified confusion that existed within the circuit as to the proper test for establishing a prima facie case of employment discrimination under the ADA. The court rejected a three-part test used by the district court in granting summary judgment reasoning that it is inconsistent with the Monette formulation expounded in Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1186 (6th Cir. 1996). The court further confirmed that within the Sixth Circuit, Monette requires that a plaintiff must prove that she was discriminated against solely because of her disability.

Finally, the court concluded that there was overwhelming evidence that Whitfield was fired because she did a poor job, and that her performance problems were completely unrelated to her disabilities. Although Whitfield alleged that she could have done a better job if the employer had provided her all the accommodations she requested, the court determined that there were other performance deficiencies that were completely unrelated to her disabilities, and that Whitfield failed to prove that the employer's decision to fire her for these problems was a pretext for discrimination.

By: Merl H. Wayman

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