The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals—which covers Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota—recently reversed an Arkansas district court’s dismissal of a discrimination claim brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by a deceased employee’s estate.
John Guenther, Jr., began working for Griffin Construction Company, Inc., in 2008. For the next 4 years, he oversaw construction projects across Arkansas and Texas. In the spring of 2012, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He requested and received roughly 3 weeks of leave to receive treatment, and he returned to work when it appeared the treatment was successful.
In 2013, Guenther learned the cancer had spread throughout his body. He notified Griffin that he would need to take another 3 weeks of leave to undergo radiation therapy. Instead, the company fired him, saying he could reapply for any openings in the future if he wished. Despite its alleged promises to the contrary, Griffin also immediately canceled Guenther’s insurance policies.
Guenther filed a timely charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He died before the administrative process was complete. In May 2015—roughly 22 months after Guenther was fired, 20 months after he filed his charge, and 12 months after he passed away—the EEOC issued its right-to-sue letter, having found reasonable cause. Justin Guenther, special administrator of Guenther’s estate, then filed suit under the ADA.
Griffin asked the court to dismiss the case, contending the claims didn’t survive Guenther’s death. The district court applied the Arkansas tort (personal injury) survival statute, agreed with Griffin that Guenther’s ADA claim was extinguished at his death, and dismissed the lawsuit. Guenther’s estate appealed.
8th Circuit’s Opinion
On appeal, the court explained that whether a federal claim survives the death of an employee alleging discrimination is a question of federal law. The court noted that Congress could have supplied the answer by explicitly instructing courts how to resolve situations like this one, but federal lawmakers didn’t do that.
It also noted that the ADA is silent on the claim-survival issue, and there’s no general survival statute for cases involving federal questions of law. Therefore, the court stated, the question of survival “is governed by federal common law when, as here, there is no expression of contrary intent” from Congress.
The court recognized that in these types of situations, it’s sometimes best to incorporate state law, while a uniform rule throughout federal law is warranted at other times. The court further pointed out that whether to adopt state law or create a uniform federal rule is a matter of judicial policy that depends on a variety of considerations that are always relevant to the nature of the specific governmental interests and to the effects of applying state law.
Unlike the district court, the court of appeals was convinced that the relevant considerations weighed in favor of a uniform rule of survivability for an ADA compensatory damages claim.
First, the court reasoned, state law shouldn’t be incorporated if doing so would frustrate specific objectives of a federal program. Federal courts must ensure that the application of state law poses no significant threat to any identifiable federal policy or interest.
So, the court queried, what did Congress say? Federal lawmakers declared their interest in passing the ADA was to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate” with “clear, strong, consistent, [and] enforceable standards” to address the “serious and pervasive social problem” of disability-based discrimination on a case-by-case basis.
The court was persuaded by the estate’s argument that terminating compensatory ADA claims upon an employee’s death poses a “special threat to enforcement” of the ADA because the very nature of the Act makes it more likely that the employee will die before the case is complete, given the health issue that brings him under the statute’s protection.
The court reasoned that an employee’s death is not a “farfetched assumption” in this situation because ADA claims specifically involve disabled employees alleging they were discriminated against because of their disability and Congress passed the ADA to eradicate discrimination against disabled individuals, some of whom may be targeted precisely because of their poor health.
The court concluded that allowing a state law to terminate an employee’s claims when he dies impedes the broad remedial purpose of the ADA. The court further found that Congress’ call for a “national mandate” with “consistent” standards and the desire to effect the “evenhanded application” of the ADA’s antidiscrimination provisions both weigh in favor of a uniform federal rule.
Griffin argued that incorporating state law wouldn’t frustrate the ADA’s underlying policies or disrupt uniformity because, by analogy, the courts incorporate state statutes of limitations for ADA claims. (A statute of limitations is a law that prescribes the period of time during which someone can file a lawsuit.) That was comparing apples to oranges, the court replied. Moreover, whatever surface appeal the statute of limitations analogy may have did not withstand closer scrutiny.
Although statutes of limitations require action within a certain time, they will not entirely bar a diligent employee from filing suit. A survivorship statute, on the other hand, may be an absolute barrier to an employee (or his estate) who does everything he can to assert his rights. The court further noted that in the timely filing situation, the employee has an element of control; in the case of survivorship, he does not.
The court added that the backdrop against which Congress remained silent was different for time limits and survivorship. The general practice of applying state statutes of limitations to federal laws has been followed for many years, whereas federal courts have historically applied a well-established uniform rule to address survivorship.
For all of those reasons, the court held that federal common law did not incorporate state law to determine whether an ADA claim for compensatory damages survives or terminates upon the employee’s death.
As a result, the employee’s estate may bring and maintain a lawsuit for compensatory damages under the ADA in his place. (The court specified that it was not opining on whether an ADA claim for punitive damages or a claim under any other federal law would survive.) Accordingly, the court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the case.
In this case, the 8th Circuit agreed with every lower court under its jurisdiction that has been presented with the issue of whether an ADA compensatory damages claim survives after the employee’s death. Although that is significant, it’s unlikely that it will have any practical effect on companies’ employment decisions. Certainly, no legitimate business makes employment decisions assuming it will have no liability under the ADA because the disabled employee won’t live long enough to make or litigate a discrimination claim.