7th Circuit affirms summary judgment for INDOT on ADA discrimination claim

A former employee of the Indiana Department of Transportation failed to prove he was fired due to his post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, so a district court judge properly granted INDOT summary judgment on the employee’s discrimination claims, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals determined Monday.

As unit foreman for INDOT, Jeff Monroe was charged with supervising night shift employees and helped with the clean-up of human remains after traffic accidents. In addition to his difficult work for INDOT, Monroe faced difficulties in his personal life, including combat service in the Gulf War and losing his sister, who lived with him, to cancer.

Near the end of his employment with INDOT, Monroe told his supervisor, Terry George, that he was feeling burned out and requested to be transferred to the day shift, but was told no such position was available. George then gave Monroe a performance review of “Exceeds Expectations” for 2012, the same rating he received the two previous years.

Then in January 2013, Monroe told his subordinates they would have to help another unit prepare equipment for an expected snowfall. When two crew members objected, Monroe used profanity and asked another crew leader to take over.

The next day, Monroe’s subordinates complained about their boss to George, who then called his supervisor, J.D. Brooks. Brooks contacted human resources director Jeff Neuman, who was told by the employees that Monroe screamed at them, did not show respect, threatened to fire them and publicly ridiculed an employee with a hearing impairment.

Based on those complaints, Neuman began an investigation, and George called Monroe to inform him of the situation. During that phone call, Monroe told George he had been preliminarily diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Monroe also shared that information with Brooks and Neuman at a subsequent meeting.

After Neuman completed his investigation, he corroborated the claims that Monroe exhibited hostile behavior. Then, Neuman and other INDOT leaders questioned Monroe’s PTSD diagnosis, noting that it came right after the employees complained about him and that he had not provided documentation to back up his diagnosis. Thus, the group terminated Monroe on Feb. 4, 2013, for exhibiting hostile and intimidating behavior.

Monroe, however, claimed three other INDOT employees who also exhibited inappropriate conduct were not fired, but rather were demoted or given the option to resign. He filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in February 2014, claiming his termination constituted disability discrimination and that INDOT had failed to reasonably accommodate his disability in violation of the American with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act.

The district court granted summary judgment to INDOT, finding Monroe failed to show INDOT’s proffered reason for firing him was pretextual and that he did not identify a similarly situated employee who was treated more favorably. The court also determined INDOT was not aware of Monroe’s disability at the time he requested to be transferred to the day shift.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Monday in the case of Jeff Monroe v. Indiana Department of Transportation and Joe McGuinness, 16-1959, with Judge Ann C. Williams writing there was no genuine issue of material fact as to either of Monroe’s allegations against his former employer.

Specifically, Williams wrote that Monroe’s positive performance reviews cannot point toward a pretextual reason for his termination because his subordinates had not yet complained to George at the time George completed the performance review. Similarly, the fact that the decision-makers discussed Monroe’s PTSD diagnosis at the meeting where they decided to fire him was also not pretextual, because the conversation focused on whether he had that disability, not whether he should be fired because of it.

Finally, Williams wrote that the three employees Monroe compared himself to were not similarly situated. Monroe failed to establish that similarity by offering limited evidence, and, further, the same decision-makers were not involved with the disciplinary proceedings related to the three other employees, she wrote. Additionally, at the time two of those employees were disciplined, INDOT could only fire employees for “just cause,” a standard that had changed to “at will” by the time Monroe was disciplined.

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