Nebraska Federal Court Allows EEOC-Initiated ADA Lawsuit To Proceed

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Alex W. Karasik, and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways: In EEOC v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., No. 8:18-CV-00329, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95981 (D. Neb. May 31, 2023), a federal district court in Nebraska denied an employer’s partial motion to reconsider the Court’s prior denial of its motion for summary judgment, holding that facially discriminatory policies can be demonstrated through evidence other than hiring policy documents.

For employers facing EEOC-initiated lawsuits involving ADA claims in the hiring process, this decision is instructive in terms of the evidence courts will consider at the summary judgment stage, particularly training documents that may be discriminatory on their face.

Case Background

The EEOC filed suit on behalf of a hearing-impaired truck driver applicant (the “Claimant”) who submitted an application with Defendant Werner Enterprises, Inc. (“Werner”).  The Claimant, along with other hearing-impaired applicants, allegedly were subject to a different workflow for applications. The EEOC claimed an internal training document provided by Werner instructed its recruiters to provide a different workflow for applications from hearing-impaired drivers – if the recruiter was “aware of an FMCSA waiver or a hearing issue, then the recruiter was directed ‘do not Pre-Approve the application.’” Id. at *3. Instead, the recruiter would send the hearing-impaired applicants completed application “to the manager basket,” and management would decide to move forward or not. Id. Therefore, the EEOC contended Werner’s pre-approval procedure adversely affected hearing-impaired applicants.

After the Claimant filed an administrative charge, and the EEOC ultimately filed a lawsuit on his behalf, Werner moved for summary judgment. It argued that its training document at issue “does not unlawfully classify applicants because of their disability.” Id. at *4. Instead, Werner maintained diverting applications from hearing-impaired applicants was to verify that an applicant had a valid exemption from physical qualification standards. Id.

The Court rejected Werner’s argument and reasoned that the training document does instruct recruiters to treat hearing-impaired applicants differently from other applicants. Id. at *4-5. Subsequently, Werner filed a motion to reconsider the denial of its motion for summary judgment.

The Court’s Decision

The Court denied Werner’s motion for reconsideration.

In Werner’s motion for summary judgment, it asserted that the EEOC’s claim of a “facially discriminatory” hiring policy could only be based on a single training document without considering other evidence.  In its motion to reconsider, Werner pivoted and argued that the Court erred by considering what might be shown by evidence beyond the face of the training document. Id. at *5-6.  The Court reasoned that applicable case law authorities consider whether the policy is discriminatory on its face, but this inquiry is not dispositive of the entire claim. The Court also opined that the EEOC could demonstrate discriminatory intent through other evidence if the policy is not discriminatory on its face. Id. at *8.  The Court also noted that the policy at issue was facially discriminatory – “even if a policy isn’t discriminatory on its face (which, to reiterate, this document is.)” in light of Werner’s assertion. Id.

The Court rejected Werner’s argument that the EEOC’s claim of a facially discriminatory hiring policy was based exclusively on the training document itself.  First, the Court explained the basics of a discrimination claim require the EEOC must show, among other things, an adverse employment action because of disability. Second, the Court explained that discriminatory intent can be proved either through direct evidence of discrimination, or through a showing of disparate treatment. Id. at *6.  As to this point, the Court clarified there is direct evidence of discrimination when the “evidence shows a specific link between the alleged discriminatory animus and the challenged decision, sufficient to reasonably support a finding that an illegitimate criterion actually motivated the adverse employment action.” Id.

The Court held that Werner’s training document evidenced disparate treatment, but the effect of that treatment, if any, occurred after the applications from hearing-impaired drivers were diverted to the “manager basket.”  Id. at *9.   The Court also found the EEOC was not bound by its pleading to rely exclusively on the face of the training document to support its claim.  Id.  Finally, the Court determined the disputed issue for the parties to focus on is whether accommodating a hearing-impaired placement driver is reasonable.  Id. at *10-11.  Therefore, the Court denied Werner’s motion to reconsider the denial of Werner’s motion for summary judgment.

Implications For Employers

Employers confronted with EEOC-initiated litigation involving hiring practices should take note that the Court relied heavily on additional evidence demonstrating discriminatory intent supporting the purported facially discriminatory policy. Further, from a practical standpoint, employers should carefully evaluate training documents that may impact applicants with disabilities, as courts are apt to scrutinize these materials.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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