Back in September 2013, I reported on a seemingly never-ending case of Tomick v. UPS and mentioned that it was headed to its second appeal at the Connecticut Appellate Court. (I talked about the history of the case and the first appeal back in 2012 too. Amazingly, it dates to a termination decision way back in 2004!)
Well, it’s back. Today, the Appellate Court officially released its newest decision looking at a particular issue: Namely, is an employee required to show that he was qualified to perform the essential duties of his position at the time of an adverse employment decision?
To establish the basic elements (or a “prima facie case”) of a disability discrimination, an individual must typically show that he was “qualified for the position”. UPS argued on appeal that it “is fundamental, under both state and federal law, that a plaintiff bringing a claim of disability [discrimination] must be capable of performing his/her essential job functions as of the date of the adverse employment action being challenged”.
The Appellate Court disagreed. In doing so, it indicated that the requirement of “qualification” is necessary only when it is “germane” to the issues involved. It cited Curry v. Allan S. Goodman, Inc. where the “plaintiff’s qualifications were essential in determining whether the employer could in fact employ the plaintiff with or without a reasonable accommodation.”
But the court went on. If the “question of qualification is not relevant to the main question of whether there was discrimination, our Supreme Court holds that no such showing is necessary….”.
In this case, because the plaintiff was already an employee of the defendant and his qualifications for the position held were not being challenged, the court said that the question of whether the plaintiff was qualified to perform the essential functions of his position at the time of termination was not relevant.
Interestingly, the court did suggest a different result in a different case. If the defendant, for example, asserted that it could no longer continue to employ the plaintiff, with or without reasonable accommodations, on the basis of his unsatisfactory performance or lack of qualifications as a result of his disability, then the qualification element might come back into play.
For employers, the case is a notable play on legal theories. But from a practical perspective, it’s hard to see how this will change the advice typically given to employers.
The Appellate Court went on to address another interesting aspect: Punitive damages. I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.