Austin, TX (Law Firm Newswire) June 2, 2021 – The court found that the employer wrongfully terminated the employee but modified the jury’s award of compensatory damages.
Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Texas employment discrimination case. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that her employer wrongfully terminated her based on her qualifying disability. At trial, the plaintiff prevailed, resulting in the defendant’s appeal.
The Facts of the Case
According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was a property manager at an apartment complex. In May 2015, the plaintiff was injured, resulting in multiple compound fractures in her pelvis. The plaintiff underwent surgery and, after seeking accommodation to work part-time and to use a wheelchair, the plaintiff returned to work that July. The plaintiff and her surgeon believed she could return to work full-time and without the need for a wheelchair in August.
On July 22, the plaintiff supervisor visited the apartment complex. The supervisor noticed several maintenance issues and emailed the plaintiff a list of things that needed to be addressed. The plaintiff began working on the list and completed each of the items except for one, which was underway.
The plaintiff visited her surgeon again on August 13, at which point she was told that she could start to put weight on her leg but was not yet ready to walk unassisted. The surgeon recommended that the plaintiff continue to work part-time until September 21. The plaintiff called her supervisor to inform her of the update, and, according to the plaintiff, her supervisor was not happy about the news.
On August 24, the supervisor returned to the apartment complex for the first time since July. Even though the plaintiff had completed all but one of the items on the list, the supervisor handed the plaintiff a letter, stating “property’s performance has not met expectations under [the plaintiff’s] management and it has become necessary to place another manager in that role to increase occupancy rates and make the property perform as needed.”
The plaintiff filed a Texas disability discrimination lawsuit, claiming that her employer fired her in violation of her rights under the Texas Labor Code. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding her $168,556.17 in back pay, $225,000 in compensatory damages, and $60,000 in attorney’s fees. The employer appealed.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
On appeal, the court began by noting that, to succeed in a Texas disability discrimination claim, a plaintiff must establish:
1. she has a disability,
2. she is qualified for the job she seeks, and
3. she suffered an adverse employment decision because of her disability.
The employer did not challenge that the plaintiff had a disability but claimed that she was not qualified for the job and that the employer’s decision to terminate the plaintiff was not related to her disability.
First, the court considered whether the plaintiff was qualified for the job. The plaintiff’s job description was typical for that of a property manager, in that she was responsible for renting the units, supervising maintenance staff, and addressing any tenant’s problems. The employer claimed that a property manager would need to climb up and down the stairs to do the job effectively. The court also reviewed testimony from a maintenance employee who stated that the plaintiff was qualified to do the job. Ultimately, the court noted that the jury found in the plaintiff’s favor on this issue and that there was sufficient evidence to support this finding.
Next, the court considered whether the plaintiff’s termination was due to her disability. Again, the jury found in the plaintiff’s favor on this issue, so the court was tasked with determining if there was sufficient evidence of the jury’s finding. The court found that there was.
In coming to this conclusion, the court noted that the plaintiff completed nearly all of the list items detailed by the supervisor. The court also pointed out that the supervisor did not visit the property between the time she sent the email outlining the maintenance problems and when she handed the plaintiff her termination letter. The court explained that, while the employer provided other reasons for its decision to terminate the plaintiff, the jury found these reasons were not credible and that it was free to disbelieve the testimony of the employer’s witnesses.
At this point, the jury’s decision in favor of the plaintiff was upheld. However, the court modified the plaintiff’s compensatory damages award because the employer had only 50 employees at the time of the incident. Under Texas law, compensatory damages in an employment discrimination case are limited to $50,000 for employers with fewer than 100 employees. However, in this case, the jury awarded the plaintiff $225,000 in compensatory damages. As a result of the court’s modification, the plaintiff’s damages award was reduced by $175,000 to $50,000. She also recovered $168,556 in back pay and $60,000 in attorney’s fees.
Austin employment lawyer Gregory D. Jordan explains that this serves as a good reminder for employers, who must take special care when working with employees who are experiencing disability:
While employers are not prohibited from terminating an employee who has a disability, they must be careful when doing so. Employers cannot use an employee’s disability in the decision-making process. There must be an independent basis for terminating an employee. If an employer cannot provide a reason unrelated to an employee’s disability, they may be liable under state or federal anti-discrimination laws.
At the Law Offices of Gregory D. Jordan, Attorney Jordan represents both employers and employees in all Texas employment lawsuits and arbitration matters. Attorney Jordan has over 30 years of relevant experience assisting businesses and employees in Travis County and throughout Central Texas. Contact the Law Offices of Gregory D. Jordan at http://www.theaustintriallawyer.com/.