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In a recent Fourth Circuit case, the court decided against a former employee because the employer provided a legitimate reason for firing the employee, and the employer’s actions and statements regarding the reasons for firing her remained consistent.

Victoria Anderson sued her former employer in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland for failure to accommodate her claimed disability of insufficient sleep.  Her complaint, brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Montgomery County, Maryland, Human Rights Act (“MCHRA”), included a claim for retaliation, as well as a claim of interference of rights under the Family medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  Upon appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the court agreed with the district court that Anderson was not “substantially impaired” by her lack of sleep and that Discovery’s reasons for terminating Anderson were not a pretext.  Click here for the opinion.

From August 2004 to January 2007, Anderson worked as an attorney for Discovery Communications, LLC (“Discovery”).  While Discovery recognized her for her legal skills, Anderson’s annual performance reviews consistently highlighted her lack of organization and prioritization and poor interpersonal skills with colleagues and clients.

In fall 2006, during a period of leave from employment after experiencing difficulty sleeping and getting less than 4 hours of sleep on an average night, tests by her regular doctor and a sleep specialist suggested she likely suffered from fatigue, sleep deprivation, and insomnia.  Anderson’s regular doctor recommended that she return to working full time, but no more than 8 hours per day.

Anderson requested work days limited to 8 hours but only agreed to working in the office between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.  She also refused to agree to track her personal, break or lunch time or account for her specific workload.  In response, Anderson’s supervisors at Discovery denied her request, stating that her job required her to be in the office from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each weekday, work a minimum of 40 hours per week, and remain flexible to work outside 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. when international transactions required.  In January 2007, Discovery terminated Anderson.

The District Court granted summary judgment to Discovery, stating that Anderson failed to show (1) a prima facie case of failure to accommodate, (2) that Discovery’s legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for firing her were a pretext; and (3) that she had a serious medical condition entitling her to FMLA leave.  Anderson appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit.

ADA Claims

The ADA prohibits discrimination in employment decisions against individuals on the basis of disability.  42 U.S.C. § 12112(a).  A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

The Fourth Circuit court agreed with the lower court that the evidence did not support the conclusion that Anderson was “substantially impaired” by her amount of sleep at the time Discovery terminated her employment.  This court applied the Supreme Court precedent case that held that the term “substantially” is to be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled: the impairment must prevent or severely restrict the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.  The impairment must also be permanent or long term.

(Despite Congress’ amendment of the ADA considerably in 2008, thus broadening the Supreme Court’s narrow reading of the statute, the court applied the Supreme Court precedent case because Anderson was terminated prior to the amendment.)

Anderson’s doctors testified that during appointments in November and December of 2006, Anderson told them that her condition had improved since her time off and that she was not feeling any functional impairment as a result of getting less sleep.  The court concluded that Anderson failed to present evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact as to whether she was substantially impaired in December 2006.

As for her ADA retaliation claim, Anderson had to show she engaged in conduct protected by the ADA, that she suffered an adverse employment action subsequent to engaging in the protected conduct, and a causal link existed between the protected activity and the adverse action.  To show the causal link, she had to show that Discovery’s reason for the termination was a pretext for discrimination or retaliation.  See Op. at 14, citing Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 432 (4th Cir. 2006).

Anderson claimed that at the time of termination, her supervisor told her that the only reason she was being let go was her failure to update her time records, but that since litigation began, Discovery manufactured additional reasons to support its decision.  The Fourth Circuit court has held in the past that an employer’s changing explanations for its employment decision gives rise to an inference of pretext, but the court noted that this was not the case here.  Since the time of Anderson’s actual discharge through litigation, Discovery’s explanation for its decision had been consistent:  Anderson’s untrustworthiness and poor communication skills.  The court stated that in the absence of such evidence of pretext, it is not their province to decide whether Discovery’s reason was wise, fair, or even correct, so long as it truly was the reason for Anderson’s termination.  Therefore, the Fourth Circuit court concluded that the district court rightfully granted summary judgment to Discovery.

FMLA claim

The FMLA allows certain employees to take a total of 12 work weeks of leave during a twelve-month period for a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of her job.  Anderson claimed that Discovery violated the FMLA by unlawfully interfering with her right to take a reduced work schedule upon her return to work in November.  To establish her FMLA claim, she had to prove interference and also that the violation prejudiced her in some way- which can be shown by lost compensation or benefits due to the violation, or a loss in employment status remediable through appropriate equitable relief, such as reinstatement or promotion.

The only prejudice Anderson claimed as a result of Discovery’s alleged unlawful denial of her request for a reduced work schedule was that she was not permitted to work a reduced schedule.  She did not claim lost compensation, benefits, employment status, or the like due to the interference.  The court noted that her termination was an unrelated event.  Therefore, the court held that her interference claim failed.

In this case, Discovery was able to show that there were other grounds for Anderson’s termination and that her disability was not the reason they fired her.  Most importantly, Discovery did not change its position on what those grounds were.  Consistency is key to avoiding an inference of pretext.  So long as an employer’s provided reasons for a termination remain unchanging and other evidence showing pretext is absent, fired employees should be unsuccessful on a retaliation claim in the Fourth Circuit.