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Ex-state employee loses disability discrimination appeal

January 28, 2019

A former of Department of Insurance employee fired after engaging in a verbal altercation and making crude comments about another employee has lost her disability-discrimination appeal before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case of Brenda Lear Scheidler v. State of Indiana, et al., 17-2543, traces back to Scheidler’s employment in an Indiana prison in 1999, when she learned an inmate had expressed a desire to torture her sexually. Scheidler left her job and sought medical treatment for trauma, then later returned to work for the state in the Department of Insurance in 2006.

Scheidler performed well in her job for IDOI, but when the department hired a recently released offender in 2009, she became scared and was diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, Scheidler took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and when she returned, she asked other employees, including Annette Gunter and Ronda Ankney, not to startle her.

Scheidler ran into trouble again in the spring of 2013, when she and another employee, Mary Ann Williams, both applied for a job within IDOI. According to Gunter and Ankney, Scheidler said Williams would likely get the promotion because advancing in a career is about “who you know and who you blow.”

Then in May, Scheidler received an email from her supervisor about redistribution of duties. Scheidler asked Gunter — who was also a supervisor — about the email, but Gunter said she didn’t know the details and later told Ankney in her cubicle, “I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t string her up by the end of the week.” Scheidler overheard the comment and confronted Gunter about it, prompting Gunter to make a choking motion and say, “I could just strangle you.”

An argument ensued and an investigation was ordered, which ultimately led to the State Personnel Department’s discovery of Scheidler’s “blow” comment about Williams. The IDOI commissioner thus decided to file a written reprimand against Gunter and terminate Scheidler, prompting state and federal proceedings.

At the state level, an administrative law judge found in Scheidler’s favor on her claim for disability-related retaliation but ruled for the department on all other claims. The State Employees’ Appeals Commission affirmed, but the state proceedings were stayed pending resolution of the instant federal case.

Before the Indiana Southern District Court, Scheidler alleged disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act and retaliation under Title VII. While the court denied summary judgment to the state on the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims, it granted summary judgment to the state for sex- and disability-based retaliation claims and a failure-to-accommodate claim. The surviving claims went to trial, and a jury ruled in favor of the defense.

The 7th Circuit upheld the partial summary judgment order in a Friday opinion, finding first that the district court did not err in determining Scheidler’s failure-to-accommodate claim was the same as her disability-discrimination-disparate-treatment claim. Judge Daniel Manion, writing for the unanimous circuit panel, said the incident with Gunter was a “one-off” event, and Scheidler did not allege other accommodation problems other than that incident.

 “We do not hold a single even could never support a claim for failure to accommodate,” Manion wrote. “We merely conclude on this record the single cubicle episode does not support this claim. Any error in conflating the claim for failure to accommodate with the claim for disparate treatment was therefore harmless.”

The 7th Circuit also upheld summary judgment for the state on Scheidler’s retaliation claims, with Manion noting that neither party believed her “blow” comment “was an actual complaint of sexual harassment or discrimination” warranting protection under Title VII. Likewise, the circuit court agreed with the Southern District that Scheidler “failed to show statutorily-protected activity” to support her disability-based retaliation claim.

Further, though the district court erroneously granted summary judgment to the IDOI commissioner on grounds not raised by the defendants without providing notice or a reasonable response time, such error was harmless because Scheidler “offers no satisfactory explanation of how the premature summary judgment for Robertson ultimately prejudiced her,” Manion said.

Finally, the circuit court upheld the exclusion of evidence relating to Donna Thomas, an IDOI employee who was fired in 2011 after saying a racial slur. Manion said that issue was forfeited because Scheidler failed to accept the district court’s invitation to admit Thomas-related evidence through witnesses other than Scheidler.

“Besides,” Manion concluded, “Scheidler has not offered sufficient reasons to convince us admission would have changed the outcome.”

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