January 22, 2013

Common Sense Prevails In the Ninth Circuit In Disability Discrimination Opinion: Lawler v. Montblanc North America, LLC

Another win for employers from the Ninth Circuit!  On January 11, 2013, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of an employer based on the former employee’s failure to present any genuine issues of material fact as to each of her claims under California law, specifically her claims for: (1) disability discrimination under FEHA; (2) retaliation under FEHA; (3) harassment under FEHA; and (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In the diversity action, Plaintiff-Appellant Cynthia Lawler  appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendants-Appellees Montblanc North America, LLC and its President and CEO, Jan-Patrick Schmitz.

Lawler worked as a manager in one of its California boutique retail stores.  Lawler’s duties as a manager included hiring, training, and supervising sales staff; overseeing and developing customer relations; administrating stocking and inventory; cleaning; creating store displays; and preparing sales reports.  Lawler admitted that she could only perform her duties in the store.  Lawler further acknowledged that during the holiday season, which lasts from the Friday after Thanksgiving to January 2 each year, the hours increased to approximately 70 hours per week.  Further, the store made one-third of its annual sales during this time period.  Montblanc maintained a policy prohibiting employee vacations during the holiday season.

In June 2009, Lawler was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and her physician recommended a reduced workweek of 20 hours.  Lawler therefore made a request to Montblanc, which requested additional documentation to determine whether the accommodation could be provided.  A few weeks after the initial diagnosis, on August 4, 2009, Lawler fractured her toes after a fall at her home.  Her podiatrist authorized her to return to work on September 2, 2009.  In need of a fax machine to fax Human Resources the documentation relating to her injury, Lawler traveled to the Montblanc store.  While at the store, Schmitz and Montblanc’s Vice President of Retail, Mike Giannattasio, arrived for an inspection.  Schmitz asked Lawler about her attire in an “abrupt, brisk” manner.  After Lawler informed him that she was off work on disability, Schmitz told her, in an “intimidating,” “abrupt,” and “gruff” tone, “We will talk when I get back.”  Schmitz and Gianattasio then left to walk around the surrounding stores and view their “competition.”  According to Lawler, Schmitz also made other demands, but when Lawler told Schmitz she was on disability leave and couldn’t do the work, Schmitz told her to “do it or else.”

After that incident, Lawler complained about Schmitz’s conduct to her regional manager and she obtained a letter from her doctor advising that she take an extended leave of absence through Jan. 5, 2010.  Montblanc sent the doctor a letter asking if there were any accommodations it could make that would allow Lawler to be regularly present at the store and performing her job duties. The doctor responded that Lawler needed to remain off work until January.  A week later, Lawler’s regional manager called her and told her that she was being terminated, effective Oct. 31, 2009.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment on all of Lawler’s claims.  While this case is relatively fact specific (as most disability discrimination cases are), it provides good case law with respect to employees who need particular accommodations, such as leaves of absence, despite the fact that their job duties require them to be on-site somewhere.

What are the practical points to take away from this case?  First, if a plaintiff is unable to work at all, she can’t win a disability discrimination case.  Here, Lawler was completely unable to work and therefore perform the essential duties of her position as a store manager.  She was unable to work during the holiday season, the store’s busiest time of the year.  These facts prevented Lawler from establishing a genuine dispute of material fact on his discrimination claim.  Second, when a supervisor acts and makes statements that are within the scope of his responsibilities, that conduct cannot be harassment.  Schmitz’s comments and abruptness with Lawler, while rude and disrespectful, were all related to work and within the scope of his responsibility as the President/CEO.  The Court correctly determined that his conduct did not constitute harassment or intentional infliction of emotional distress.