HR Management & Compliance

Employer’s Injured-player Analogy Backfires in ADA Suit

A university’s likening of a disabled professor to a baseball player with a career-ending injury did not persuade a judge to dismiss the professor’s disability discrimination allegations. On the contrary, it showed that the employer may have fired the professor because of his disability, a federal judge said in Matland v. Loyola University of Chicago, No. 12 C 51651:12–cv–05165 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 28, 2013).

Richard Matland, a political science professor, was appointed to a chair position at Loyola University of Chicago. The appointment was for a five-year term, with reappointment if he maintained an excellent research and teaching record. Then he was befallen with interstitial lung disease, and began intensive treatments for it. When he applied for reappointment, he noted that his disability had prevented him from achieving his publishing goals during his previous term.

University officials instructed an internal review committee not to consider Matland’s health in deciding whether to renew his appointment. Considering only his academic merit, the committee recommended that his appointment not be renewed. The dean ultimately agreed but  alluded to the professor’s poor health:

Here’s how [I] view it, and I will argue by analogy. Suppose a star major league baseball player signs a multi-million dollar five year contract. Further suppose that two years into the contract the player sustains, through no fault of his own, a career-ending injury. Certainly the team is obliged to still pay him until the end of his contract — presumably his agent put in language to that effect. But when the five years are up, is the team obliged to offer him a new five year contract when he can no longer play the game at the major league level? Clearly not. The same would be true here, in my view: nowhere does Dr. Matland claim his illness is going to ameliorate, that renewed high productivity can be expected. So I do not see an injustice in passing the responsibilities of the … professorship on to someone else.

Matland sued, alleging that Loyola denied him a reasonable accommodation and fired him based on his disability. Loyola moved for summary judgment on both claims.

The court denied the school’s motions, first noting that “Loyola’s unilateral decision to interpret Matland’s narrative about his illness as extraneous information — rather than a request for accommodation — is not entitled to deference under the ADA.” A reasonable jury could find that his renewal application included a request for accommodation sufficient to trigger the employer’s duty to engage in the interactive process, the court said.

The school also was not entitled to summary judgment on the termination claim. Loyola argued that disability discrimination was not the “but-for” cause of his firing, as is required in the 7th Circuit. The court, however, said the dean’s memo comparing Matland to a baseball player contained direct evidence that his disability was a “but-for” cause of his firing. A reasonable jury could find that under the dean’s reasoning, but for his assumption about Matland’s prognosis, he would have recommended renewing his appointment, the court said, allowing the case to proceed to a jury.

Read the full story at Thompson’s HR Compliance Expert.