Class certification is not warranted in pattern or practice cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) where classwide liability cannot be proven without an individualized determination that each class member is disabled within the meaning of the ADA. In Hohider v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 2009 WL 2183267 (3d Cir., July 23, 2009), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the certification of a nationwide class of employees alleging that their employer had a pattern or practice of precluding employees out on medical leave from returning to work if they had any medical restrictions.
The named plaintiffs were current and former employees of UPS who alleged that UPS (1) prohibited employees on medical leave from returning to work with medical restrictions by enforcing an unwritten "100% healed" policy, (2) disseminated an ADA compliance policy nationwide designed to delay and avoid providing accommodations to disabled workers, and (3) used uniform job descriptions, which failed to describe the essential functions of available jobs, as a pretext to prevent disabled employees from working. These policies, plaintiffs contended, constituted a pattern and practice of unlawful discrimination under the ADA, impacting approximately 37,000 employees nationwide.
The district court recognized that the individualized inquiries necessary to assess whether each proposed class member was a "qualified individual with a disability" within the meaning of the ADA (i.e., whether the individual plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job with or without an accommodation or whether accommodation was possible) could not be ruled upon with respect to the class in a manner consistent with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, governing class certification. Even so, the district court certified the class relying on the two-stage framework for analyzing Title VII pattern or practice cases set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in International Brotherhood of Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324 (1977).
Under the Teamsters framework, employees asserting a pattern or practice of discrimination must first prove that their employer has followed an employment policy of unlawful discrimination—i.e., that discrimination is the employer's standard operating procedure. Employees must next prove entitlement to individual relief. The proof of a pattern or practice of discrimination established during the first stage of the Teamsters framework, the liability stage, supports an inference of discrimination in favor of the individual employee during the second stage of the Teamsters framework.
Applying Teamsters, the lower court determined that if the plaintiffs could prove that UPS maintained and followed the discriminatory policies they alleged, such proof would, in and of itself, be sufficient to establish that UPS engaged in a classwide pattern or practice of discrimination under the ADA. Individualized inquiries with respect to the class could be made when determining appropriate relief. Accordingly, the lower court certified the class.
Rejecting the lower court's conclusion that liability could be proven on a classwide basis without an individual determination that each proposed class member was a "qualified individual with a disability" and thus protected by the ADA, the Third Circuit reversed. Because the inquiries necessary to the "qualified individual with a disability" assessment could not be ruled upon with respect to the class in a manner consistent with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, the court concluded that class certification was inappropriate.
Employers should continue to apply their ADA policies in their treatment of employees with limitations. Hohider reinforces the principle that substantive differences exist between the ADA and Title VII.
If you have any questions regarding this alert or other workplace issues, please feel free to contact Frank A. Chernak (215.864.8234 or firstname.lastname@example.org) or any member of Ballard Spahr’s Labor and Employment Group.
Copyright © 2009 by Ballard Spahr LLP.
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