I have written here a few times that the life experiences a judge brings to the table are important. Pres. Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch illustrates that maxim. Judge Gorsuch, prior to assuming his chair at the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals represented big business, often opposing attempts to seek class action certification on behalf of workers. His decision in Hwang v. Kansas State University, 753 F.3d 1159 (10th Cir. 2014), is an unnecessarily harsh decision for American workers. Professor Hwang requested a six month leave of absence for recovery from her cancer treatment. She had already received one six month leave and needed another six months off. Kansas State said no, relying on an inflexible, supposedly “no-fault” leave policy.The judge speaks in broad terms that a six month leave could never work. Six months is so long that such a worker is simply not qualified for the job, said the conservative jurist. “It’s difficult to conceive how an employee’s absence for six months . . . could be consistent with discharging the essential functions of most any job . . . ” Hwang, at 1162. I have written about so-called fixed leave policies here. That is poorly worded by any judge, when precision is called for.
Yes, it is unusual for any worker to miss work for six months and remain employed. Yet, it happens frequently for a wide variety of reasons at many employers. The critical question is whether a particular job function is a true job function. Is it a true job function that the worker return to work within a certain amount of time? See Holly v. Clarion Industries, LLC, 492 F.3d 1247 (11th Cir. 2007) (Applying a multi factor test to determine whether a claimed job function of arriving timely each day is truly required by the employer); Barber v. Nabors Drilling U.S.A., Inc. 130 F. 3d 702, 707 (5th Cir. 1997) (Rehabilitation Act) (whether a job function is truly required is fact intensive); Ralph v. Lucent Technologies, Inc., 135 F.3d 166 (1st Cir. 1998) (court upholds preliminary injunction requiring four-week trial return to part-time work for employee recovering from posttraumatic stress disorder); Carmona v. Southwest Airlines Co., 604 F.3d 848 (5th Cir. 2010) (although regular attendance may be an essential function of many jobs, plaintiff’s ability to meet employer’s “extremely lenient” attendance policy indicated that he was qualified). The key question is what happens if a person does not arrive timely, said the court in Holly. What is missing from Gorsuch’s analysis is the question, what would happen to the university if Prof. Hwang was gone another six months?
Judge Gorsuch arrives at the critical question after spending some time disregarding the value of EEOC guidance and explaining why the denial of an accommodation actually benefits persons with disabilities. Hwang, at 1164. He then rejects Hwang’s suggestions that some faculty members receive sabbaticals of a year or longer. The reasoning is that if non-disabled persons are allowed extended leaves it would be discriminatory to not allow her an extended leave. The judge dismisses those examples as not sufficiently detailed. Hwang, at 1164. Are they tenured faculty, he asks? Are those professors on year-to-year contracts? But, those distinctions do not make a difference. The question is what would happen to the university employer if Prof. Hwang missed an additional six months. Would the business of the employer come to screeching halt? Would it offer some loss of income? What would happen? That the employer might allow extended leave for a year-to-year professor and not for a full tenured faculty member does not address that question. It does appear the judge was trying to reach a specific result.
The Judge could have simply said that under the facts of this case, Ms. Hwang has not shown that non-disabled workers are being treated differently. or, he could have said under the facts of this case, it appears the employer could not function if one professor took extended leave and that, therefore, the claimed job function of no extended leave is appropriate. Instead, he spoke much more broadly, suggesting a worker could never or almost never show that an employer can do without one worker for six months. He based that over broad assertion on nothing more than his personal knowledge of the working world.
Judge Gorsuch famously says a good judge is one who disagrees from time to time with his own decisions. He is right. A good judge follows precedent or the statute regardless of outcome. It just does not appear that he did so in his Hwang decision.
In another case, TransAm Trucking v. Admin. Review Board, Dept. of Labor, 833 F.3d 1206 (10th Cir. 2016), Judge Grouch dissented from a decision about a truck driver. The truck driver was stranded when his brakes froze in Illinois. The temperature was below zero at about 11 p.m. He asked his company what he should do. The tank was nearly out gas and he could not locate the fuel station required by his employer. The company told him to wait for the repair person. Then he noticed his heater was not functioning. Wishing a couple of hours, he noticed his was slurred. He fell asleep and woke up realizing after a few hours he could not feel his torso or his feet. He called the company again. The dispatcher told him to “hang in there.” After about 30 minutes of “hanging in there,” he unhitched the trailer. His supervisor told him to stay with the trailer. The boss kept telling the driver to turn on the heater and the driver kept telling his supervisor the heater was not working. The supervisor told him to drag the trailer with frozen brakes with him or stay with the trailer. That was his choice. The driver said he would go find some help and leave the trailer behind. TransAm fired him and he sued. The majority decision found he was fired because he wanted to comply with the Surface Transportation Assistance Act’s requirement to operate the truck safely.
Judge Gorsuch dissented. He admitted the employer’s decision was perhaps not wise or kind. (Gee, you think??) He pointed out that the statute protects someone who refuses to operate his vehicle out of safety concerns. But, in this situation, the driver was told to leave the trailer with the frozen brakes by the side of the road. He does admit after some protracted discussion about the meaning of “operate” that the statute is designed to protect the health and safety of the driver. But, the judge insists the statute applies to persons who “refuse to operate,” not to persons who actually operate the truck.
The judge’s focus on not operating the truck is curious. The last direction from his boss was to drive the truck with the broken trailer or stay with the trailer. His direction included both operating or not operating the truck. Yet, the judge focused on the direction to stay with the trailer by the side of the road – which meant not operating the truck. That focus does suggest the judge wanted to reach a certain result. He ignored the possibility that the driver was asked to operate the truck in an unsafe manner.
And, worse, the judge indicated the truck driver should have remained with the trailer in subzero conditions trying to to tell his boss the heater does not work. Simply to protect the cargo in the trailer. As a lawyer, I am gratified any judge is so committed to the precise wording of a statute. But, if you are a truck driver stuck out in the freezing temperatures at 11 at night, and your heater does not work, you do not really want to hear about “strict construction.” Your needs are more basic. And, I think, the rest of us do not want a judge who does not appreciate that distinction.