Flowers v. Southern Regional Physician Services

Decision Date30 March 2001
Docket NumberNo. 99-31354,99-31354
Citation247 F.3d 229
Parties(5th Cir. 2001) SANDRA SPRAGIS FLOWERS Plaintiff - Appellee v. SOUTHERN REGIONAL PHYSICIAN SERVICES INC. Defendant - Appellant
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana

Before KING, Chief Judge, and HIGGINBOTHAM and DUHE, Circuit Judges.

KING, Chief Judge:

Defendant-Appellant Southern Regional Physician Services, Inc. appeals from the district court's final judgment on a jury verdict awarding Plaintiff-Appellee Sandra Spragis Flowers damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act for disability-based harassment and from the district court's subsequent denial of Defendant-Appellant's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff-Appellee Sandra Spragis Flowers was employed by Defendant-Appellant Southern Regional Physician Services, Inc. ("Southern Regional") from September 1, 1993 to November 13, 1995. Flowers worked primarily as a medical assistant for Dr. James Osterberger, a physician at Southern Regional.1 In early March 1995, Margaret Hallmark, Flowers's immediate supervisor, discovered that Flowers was infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus ("HIV"). Flowers was terminated from Southern Regional in November 1995.

On October 6, 1996, Flowers filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that Southern Regional had engaged in unlawful discrimination because of Flowers's status as a disabled person. After receiving the requisite Right to Sue Letter from the EEOC, Flowers filed suit in federal court asserting a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. 12101-12213 (1995). Flowers claimed both that she was terminated because of her disability and also that she was subjected to "harassing conduct" designed to "force [her] from her position or cast her in a false light for the purpose of terminating her because of her HIV status."

Flowers's claims proceeded to trial by jury on December 8, 1998. At the close of Flowers's case and then again at the close of all of the evidence, Southern Regional moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("Rule 50(a) motions"). The district court denied both Rule 50(a) motions. After deliberation, the jury determined (1) that Flowers's disability was not a motivating factor in Southern Regional's decision to terminate her employment, but (2) that Flowers was subjected to disability-based harassment that created a hostile work environment. As a result of its finding of a hostile work environment, the jury awarded Flowers $350,000. The district court reduced the amount to $100,000 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1981a(b)(3)(B) (1994). The district court then entered final judgment in her favor on July 21, 1999. Pursuant to Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Southern Regional renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law ("Rule 50(b) motion"). On November 22, 1999, the district court denied the Rule 50(b) motion.

Southern Regional timely appealed.

II. AVAILABILITY OF A CAUSE OF ACTION UNDER THE ADA FOR DISABILITY-BASED HARASSMENT

In ruling on Southern Regional's Rule 50(b) motion, the district court concluded that the ADA encompasses a cause of action for disability-based harassment. Southern Regional contends, however, that no cause of action under the ADA exists, arguing only that this court had the opportunity to extend this circuit's harassment jurisprudence to such claims in McConathy v. Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Corp., but found it unnecessary to do so. See 131 F.3d 558, 563 (5th Cir. 1998) ("This case should not be cited for the proposition that the Fifth Circuit recognizes or rejects an ADA cause of action based on hostile environment harassment."). We find Southern Regional's argument to be unpersuasive and agree with the district court that the ADA embraces claims of disability-based harassment.

To date, none of our sister courts of appeals has affirmatively acknowledged that a cause of action for disability-based harassment exists under the ADA.2 Nonetheless, existing decisions of the courts of appeals that have considered this issue indicate that a claim of disability-based harassment should be cognizable under the ADA. See Silk v. City of Chicago, 194 F.3d 788, 803 (7th Cir. 1999); Walton v. Mental Health Ass'n, 168 F.3d 661, 666 (3d Cir. 1999) ("This framework indicates that a cause of action for harassment exists under the ADA."); Miranda v. Wis. Power & Light Co., 91 F.3d 1011, 1017 (7th Cir. 1996) ("Such a claim [of a hostile work environment under the ADA] would seem to arise under the general prohibition against discrimination with respect to terms or conditions of employment contained in 12112(a)."); Casper v. Gunite Corp., No. CIV.A.99-3215, 2000 WL 975168, at *4 (7th Cir. July 11, 2000) ("Such a cause of action appears to exist because the ADA prohibits discrimination in the 'terms, conditions, and privileges of employment,' which is the exact same language that the Supreme Court relied upon in finding that Title VII encompasses claims of sex discrimination due to the creation of a hostile work environment in Meritor[.]" (citations omitted)). Aside from the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, however, all of the courts of appeals that have addressed this issue, including our own, have assumed the existence of such a claim in order to dispose of the case on its merits.3 Because we are now confronting a case that we cannot so easily dispose of, we find that we must consider the question whether the ADA embodies a claim for disability-based harassment. For the following reasons, we conclude that it does.

The ADA provides that no employer covered by the Act "shall discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to . . . terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." 42 U.S.C. 12112(a) (emphasis added). In almost identical fashion, Title VII provides that it is unlawful for an employer "to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin[.]" 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1) (1994) (emphasis added).

It is evident, after a review of the ADA's language, purpose, and remedial framework, that Congress's intent in enacting the ADA was, inter alia, to eradicate disability-based harassment in the workplace. First, as a matter of statutory interpretation, in Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, the Supreme Court interpreted Title VII, which contains language similar to that in the ADA, to provide a cause of action for "harassment [which is] sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [the victim's] employment and create an abusive working environment . . . because it affects a term, condition, or privilege of employment." 491 U.S. 164, 180 (1989) (alterations in original) (internal quotations and citation omitted) (quoting Meritor Sav. Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986)). We conclude that the language of Title VII and the ADA dictates a consistent reading of the two statutes. Therefore, following the Supreme Court's interpretation of the language contained in Title VII, we interpret the phrase "terms, conditions, and privileges of employment," as it is used in the ADA, to "strike at" harassment in the workplace. See Meritor Sav. Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 64 (1986) ("The phrase 'terms, conditions, or privileges of employment' evinces a congressional intent 'to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women' in employment." (quoting Los Angeles Dep't of Water & Power v. Manhart, 435 U.S. 702, 707 n.13 (1978))); see also Haysman v. Food Lion, Inc., 893 F. Supp. 1092, 1106 (S.D. Ga. 1995) ("It would seem illogical to hold that ADA language identical to that of Title VII was intended to afford disabled individuals less protection than those groups covered by Title VII.").4

Not only are Title VII and the ADA similar in their language, they are also alike in their purposes and remedial structures. Both Title VII and the ADA are aimed at the same evil -- employment discrimination against individuals of certain classes. See 42 U.S.C. 12101(b) ("It is the purpose of this chapter . . . to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities."); H.R. Rep. No. 914, Title VII (1964), reprinted in 1964 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2391, 2401 (proclaiming that the purpose of Title VII is "to eliminate . . . discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, or national origin" and declaring that Title VII is "to be the national policy to protect the right of persons to be free from such discrimination"); see also Walton, 168 F.3d at 666-67; Newman v. GHS Osteopathic, Inc., 60 F.3d 153, 157 (3d Cir. 1995); Haysman, 893 F. Supp. at 1106 ("This cause of action is necessary if the ADA is to fulfill its purpose of protecting 'qualified individuals with disabilities' from discrimination in the work place."). Moreover, this court has recognized that "the ADA is part of the same broad remedial framework as . . . Title VII, and that all the anti-discrimination acts have been subjected to similar analysis." Miller v. Pub. Storage Mgmt., Inc., 121 F.3d 215, 218 (5th Cir. 1997); see also Buchanan v. City of San Antonio, 85 F.3d 196, 200 (5th Cir. 1996) (recognizing that "[t]he remedies provided under the ADA are the same as those provided by Title VII"); Daigle v. Liberty Life Ins. Co., 70 F.3d 394, 396 (5th Cir. 1995) (finding ADA claims subject to the same method of proof as Title VII cases). Furthermore, other courts of...

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