A recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio illustrates the relatively low bar an employee must clear to proceed with a regarded-as-disabled claim.
Douglas McGonegle worked for Sleep Number, a mattress and sleep accessory store, as an at-will employee (that is, he could be fired at any time for any or no reason). In October 2017, a customer came into the store to shop for a mattress. McGonegle assisted the customer. Ultimately, the customer left without buying anything because he found the price too high.
A few days later, McGonegle called the customer and offered him a discount. The customer returned to the store on a day when McGonegle wasn’t working. He spoke to the store manager, Julie Roborecki, and inquired about the price McGonegle had offered. Roborecki let the customer know the price wasn’t available, and he again left the store empty-handed.
Roborecki noticed the price McGonegle had allegedly quoted to the customer seemed to line up with Sleep Number’s “Friends & Family” discount. The employer let the salespeople know the discount wasn’t supposed to be used for leads or customers. It also informed them that misusing the promotion could result in disciplinary action.
The next day, Roborecki confronted McGonegle about the improper discount. The parties dispute how he responded:
- Roborecki testified McGonegle became upset and yelled, cursed, and stormed out of the store in front of customers.
- McGonegle stated he didn’t yell or curse and left the store only for short breaks.
Sleep Number ultimately terminated him.
Afterward, McGonegle came to suspect he was terminated because of disability discrimination. He suffers from essential tremor, a neurological condition that caused his hands to shake involuntarily. Roborecki allegedly confronted him about the disorder frequently and made negative comments about the trembling on five occasions. Coworkers testified she commented the condition could be a serious disease or alcoholism.
McGonegle filed a lawsuit against Sleep Number alleging disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Ohio law.
McGonegle’s complaint raised two theories for establishing he was disabled under the ADA.
First, McGonegle claimed he suffers from an actual disability. He contended the tremor qualifies as a disability because it substantially limits his nervous system’s operation, according to his doctor’s testimony. He testified, however, the condition didn’t substantially limit him in any major activity and caused problems only when he performed a few isolated activities, such as tightening small screws.
To prevail on an actual-disability theory under the ADA, an individual must show and substantial limitation of a major bodily function or major life activity. A “substantial limitation” must be more than a mere inconvenience to rise to the level of a disability. Therefore, the court granted summary judgment (dismissal without a trial) in Sleep Number’s favor on the theory because McGonegle failed to show the tremor caused any substantial limitation.
Regarded as Disabled
Second, McGonegle claimed Sleep Number regarded him as disabled because of the essential tremor. Unlike with an actual-disability theory, he had to show only that his employer knew about or believed he had an impairment to establish a prima facie (or minimally sufficient) case on a regarded-as-disabled theory. The court held he established a prima facie case under the theory because neither party disputed Sleep Number was aware of the tremor.
Sleep Number argued McGonegle failed to show its reason for firing him was a pretext (or cover-up) for discrimination. The employer claimed it discharged him for both the improper discount and his outburst when confronted by Roborecki. The company admitted it doesn’t terminate employees based on a single instance of improper discounting alone.
Regarding the alleged outburst, Roborecki’s and McGonegle’s conflicting testimonies were the only evidence produced about the former employee’s behavior at the meeting. Therefore, the court found there was a genuine issue of material fact about whether his alleged improper discounting and inappropriate behavior were a pretext for discrimination. Thus, the court denied the employer’s request for summary judgment.
McGonegle’s case underscores the different standards that apply to actual disability claims versus regarded-as-disabled charges under the ADA. Even an individual who can’t establish an actual disability under the Act may still be able to prevail on a regarded-as-disabled theory, which doesn’t require proof of an actual disability.