Eleventh Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment

The Eleventh Circuit helps shed some light on the effects of the ADA Amendments Act, effective in 2009. In Mazzeo v. Color Resolutions International, LLC, No. 12-10250, 2014 WL 12740470 (11th Cir. 3/31/14), Anthony Mazzeo suffered a herniated disc and torn ligaments in his back at the age of 46. He worked as a sales and technical representative for CRI. He discussed his condition with his supervisor three times. He told his boss that he would need surgery in 2009. He said he would miss two weeks of work and would be restricted in what he could do for months. Mr. Mazzeo later provided a specific date for the surgery. The very next day, the supervisor started paperwork to terminate Mr. Mazzeo. CRI claimed Mr. Mazzeo was laid off due to decreased revenue.

Ten days after Mr. Mazzeo's termination, CRI offered a position to a 23 year old recent college graduate. CRI claimed he was hired to replace a different employee. But, the supervisor testified that at least at first, the college graduate was hired to service Mr. Mazzeo's former sales area. 

The court addressed whether Mr. Mazzeo suffered from a disability. The treating physician had submitted an affidavit for summary judgment. The lower court had found that doctor's affidavit to be "conclusory" and lacked detail regarding how Mr. Mazzeo's impairment affected his daily life activities. The lower court cited a pre-ADAAA case to say that there could not be a disability where a doctor's note provided lifting restrictions but the employee said he could work. 

The appellate court disagreed. The Eleventh Circuit noted that pre-ADAAA cases did not apply. Unlike the pre-ADAAA case, the plaintiff Mazzeo testified regarding his limitations and explained how they affected his major life activities. And, the doctor's affidavit explained how the impairment developed. The affidavit explained the origin of the impairment, how the pain affected the employee and the limitations on the major life activities caused (as required by the ADAAA) by the condition and the pain. This was sufficient detail, said the higher court, for summary judgment. There was no deposition of the treating physician and there was no rebuttal testimony from a physician selected by the employer. So, the affidavit was unrebutted testimony. 

Mr. Mazzeo testified that his back affected him playing golf and sex. But, noted the court, the questions that elicited that answer did not contain a time reference. It is unclear from the deposition transcript whether he referred to the time before the operation or after. Indeed, said the court, many of the deposition questions addressed the time period after the operation, not his unmitigated state before the operation. The higher court noted that the EEOC regulations provide that a condition need not prevent or severely restrict a major life activity in order to be considered "substantially limiting." A condition should be viewed in its active state, not in its improved or mitigated state. The doctor said the condition limited Mr. Mazzeo in bending, walking, sleeping, and lifting more than ten pounds. This is sufficient evidence to make out a prima facie case for purposes of summary judgment. 

(Note that the court is willing to include the doctor's comments. It is, therefore, viewing Mr. Mazzeo's possibly harmful answers in light of the additional testimony from the doctor. Too many courts have disregarded the illuminating testimony from a doctor, because an employee carelessly and in very general terms said he could "work.")

The recent college graduate was 23 years old. Mr. Mazzeo was 46 years old. Does that age disparity qualify as age discrimination? The court assumed it did and answered a different question. Did the plaintiff make a sufficient showing of age discrimination? Yes, said the court. The testimony whether the college graduate replaced Mr. Mazzeo was inconsistent. The higher court correctly noted that such possible inferences should be drawn in favor of the non-movant. 

Note also the timing issues presented by the court. Laying off an employee the very day after he has notified his employer he will need surgery substantially weakens any case. Timing is very important in all employment lawsuits. Surely, the court was annoyed by this apparent reprisal. 

The court reversed the grant of summary judgment. See decision here

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