Eighth Circuit Leaves Open Question of Whether “Mixed-Motive” or “But-For” Causation Standard Should be Applied to Disability Discrimination Claims Under ADA
On December 22, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion in the case of Oehmke v. Medtronic, Inc., Case No. 16-1052, affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant/employer on plaintiff’s claims of disability discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). In its opinion, the Eighth Circuit analyzed the plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim under a mixed-motive causation standard, meaning that the Court would allow the plaintiff’s claim to proceed if it found evidence that the adverse employment action was motivated by both permissible and impermissible factors. In other words, under a mixed-motive analysis, if a discriminatory intent contributed in any way to the adverse employment action, a plaintiff can establish the causation element of a claim for disability discrimination.
In Oehmke, the Eighth Circuit cited as precedent its 1995 decision in Pedigo v. P.A.M. Transport, Inc., 60 F.3d 1300, 1301 (8th Cir. 1995). However, in a lengthy footnote, the Court noted that in its summary judgment motion, the defendant advocated for the application of the more stringent “but-for” causation standard which was articulated by the Supreme Court in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009). Although Gross involved claims of age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) (which prohibits discrimination “because of age”), courts in several circuits have extended the Supreme Court’s analysis in Gross to disability discrimination claims brought under the ADA (which prohibits discrimination “on the basis of” disability). Even while citing to Pedigo in support of its application of a mixed-motive causation standard, the Eighth Circuit also cited to its own 2012 decision calling into question the validity of ADA cases decided pre-Gross (which includes Pedigo), noting that the Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Circuits have all applied the Gross “but-for” causation standard to disability discrimination claims.
Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit left open the question of whether a mixed-motive or but-for causation standard should be applied to claims of discrimination under the ADA, finding that even under the relaxed mixed-motive standard, the defendant was still entitled to summary judgment in the Oehmke case. However, given that there is some ambiguity among the circuits regarding which causation standard should be applied in disability discrimination causes brought under the ADA, this is an issue we will continue to monitor closely.