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Media Alerts - Gentry v. East West Partners Club Management, Inc. et al. -- Fourth Circuit
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April 11, 2016
  Gentry v. East West Partners Club Management, Inc. et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Finding the Right Standard: Court Upholds "But-For" Standard for Unlawful Termination Claim

Areas of Law: Employment Law, Disability Law, Americans with Disabilities Act

Issue Presented: (1) Whether the Americans with Disabilities Act requires proof that a plaintiff's disability was the "but-for" cause of termination. (2) Whether the district court's jury instruction on the definition of "disability" under the ADA was proper. (3) Whether the jury's award for damages was proper and adequate.

Brief Summary: In a unanimous decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's jury instruction on the proper causation standard under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and the district court's jury instruction on the definition of disability under the ADA. The court also held that the jury's award for damages was adequate and proper.

Extended Summary: Judith Gentry was employed as an executive housekeeper at the Maggie Valley Club and Resort ("club"). In July 2007, Gentry fell at work and sustained a serious injury to her left foot and ankle. After surgery, she returned to work in January 2009; however, she continued to experience pain and difficulty walking. About a year later the club attempted to settle Gentry's workers' compensation claim, but Gentry declined out of fear that if she accepted, she might be terminated. Instead, she chose to mediate and her claim was ultimately settled in November 2010.

About a month later, Gentry was terminated. Gentry believed her termination was unlawfully connected to her disability and she sued the club on several state law grounds and under the ADA. At trial the jury found for Gentry on two of her state law theories, awarding her $20,000 in damages, but found for the club on all of her other claims. On appeal, Gentry challenged the jury instructions and the amount of damages awarded.

First, the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court's jury instruction on the termination standard for claims under the ADA was proper. The district court instructed the jury that to find for Gentry it must find that but-for Gentry's disability she would not have been terminated. On appeal, Gentry argued that the district court should have used the "motivating factor" standard instead - i.e., that the jury should find for her if her disability was a motivating factor in the decision to terminate her. The court analyzed the text of the ADA and held that its language required but-for causation. That conclusion, the court wrote, is also supported by the legislative history.

Next, the court addressed the definition of disability that the district court submitted in its instructions to the jury. Gentry argued that she was disabled under each of the three definitions of disability contained within the ADA. Under the ADA, if "a physical or mental impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities of [an] individual" then that individual is disabled. The district court instructed the jury that "substantially limits" means "restricts a person from performing [an] activity, compared to an average person in the general population." The court reviewed that instruction for plain error, and held that even assuming the instruction was erroneous Gentry's substantial rights were not affected. Accordingly, there was no reasonable probability that the court's instruction affected the outcome of her claim.

Under the ADA, an individual is also defined as "disabled" if that individual is "regarded as having such an impairment." The district court instructed the jury that it must decide if "a perception that [Gentry] was disabled, was the but-for reason" that she was terminated. The appellate court reviewed the instruction for abuse of discretion and found no such abuse.

Under the ADA, if an individual has "a record impairment" then they are considered disabled. At trial, the district court omitted language from the instruction that would include even misclassified disabilities within that definition. However, because Gentry neither objected at trial, nor explained how the omission applied to her case, the court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion.

Finally, Gentry challenged the amount of damages the jury awarded. Gentry argued that because the club was permitted to explain its financial distress to the jury, she should have been able to introduce evidence that the club had liability insurance coverage. The court reviewed the district court's decision to not admit that evidence and held that it did not abuse it discretion in denying admission. Gentry also argued that she was entitled to a new trial because the jury's $20,000 award was inadequate. However, the court held that, in light of several mitigating factors that were submitted to the jury, it was reasonable for the district court to deny Gentry's motion for a new trial.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Agee, Floyd, and Thacker

Argument Date: 12/10/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 3/4/2016

Docket Number: 14-2382

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion

Case Alert Author:
Travis Bullock, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Glen Coile Shults, Jr., LAW OFFICE OF GLEN C. SHULTS, Asheville, North Carolina, for Appellant. Matthew J. Gilley, FORD HARRISON, LLP, Spartanburg, South Carolina; Jonathan Woodward Yarbrough, CONSTANGY, BROOKS, SMITH & PROPHETE, LLP, Asheville, North Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Jule Seibels Northup, NORTHUP MCCONNELL & SIZEMORE, PLLC, Asheville, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Author of Opinion: Judge Floyd

Case Alert Supervisor:
Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/11/2016 12:25 PM     4th Circuit  

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