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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
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Appellate Court Finds That Employer’s Shifting Explanations For Employee’s Discharge Are Evidence Of Disability Discrimination

diable man in wheelchair and a man standing

The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of disability.  When an employee brings a disability discrimination claim under the ADA, the employer is required to proffer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the challenged employment decision.  Having long represented employees victimized by disability discrimination, our Central Florida disability discriminatory attorneys have learned that employers frequently proffer shifting explanations over time for the challenged employment decision in order to counter evidence of discrimination.  Indeed, because evidence that an employer’s articulated reason for the challenged employment decision is false constitutes proof that the decision was made for a discriminatory reason, once an employee discredits the reason originally proffered by the employer for the challenged employment decision, the employer simply proffers another reason.

In the employment discrimination context, courts have consistently held that when an employer proffers shifting explanations for the challenged employment decision, a jury is permitted to find that the explanations are false and conclude that discrimination is the real reason for the challenged employment decision.  A recent decision by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Caldwell v. KHOU-TV, 850 F.3d 237 (5th Cir. 2017) illustrates that an employer’s shifting explanations for terminating an employee support an inference of disability discrimination and enable the employee to present his or her disability discrimination claim to a jury for resolution.

Employer’s Explanations Change Over Time

  In that case, Gerald Caldwell claimed that he was fired by KHOU-TV and Gannett Company, Inc. (collectively Defendants) on the basis of disability in violation of the ADA. Caldwell began working for KHOU-TV (KHOU) in 1995 as a video editor.  As a video editor, Caldwell’s job duties included working in electronic digital recording.  Caldwell was disabled when he was hired by KHOU because he had suffered childhood bone cancer.  Because of damage to his leg from the cancer, Caldwell walked with the assistance of crutches. 

In 2014, Gannet Company, Inc. (Gannet), KHOU’s parent company, ordered a reduction-in-force and required KHOU to eliminate two video editor positions.  KHOU then made the decision to fire Caldwell.  In explaining the decision to terminate Caldwell, the Defendants initially claimed that Caldwell was fired because he refused to do electronic digital recording work.   However, once Caldwell filed his disability discrimination lawsuit, the Defendants explanation for Caldwell’s termination changed.  Over time, the Defendants’ explanation shifted from insubordination to resistance to technological changes to lack of initiative   

The Defendants filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Caldwell’s disability discrimination claim.  In doing so, the Defendants maintained that Caldwell’s disability discrimination claim was meritless and Caldwell was not entitled to present his disability discrimination to a jury for resolution.  Ignoring overwhelming evidence that the Defendants had changed their explanations for firing Caldwell, the trial court granted the Defendants’ motion and dismissed Caldwell’s disability discrimination claim.  On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court and ordered a jury trial on Caldwell’s disability discrimination claim.

Shifting Explanations Cast Doubt On Truthfulness

At the outset of its opinion, the Fifth Circuit explained that “an employer’s inconsistent explanations for an employment decision cast doubt on the truthfulness of those explanations.”  In applying this principle to the facts, the appellate court found that the Defendants’ “explanations” for Caldwell’s termination “have transformed over time.”  Initially, the appellate court observed, the Defendants claimed that Caldwell was selected for the reduction-in-force because he refused to do electronic digital recording work.  However, the appellate court pointed out, the Defendant later claimed that Caldwell was fired because of his “inability and unwillingness to adapt to technological changes.”  After this explanation, the appellate court noted, the Defendants then maintained that Caldwell was fired because he “had not taken the initiative to spend as much time in electronic digital recording as other members of the edit staff” and thus was not as proficient as other employees in performing such tasks.  Then, contrary to the Defendants’ final explanation for the Caldwell’s discharge, a management-level employee testified that Caldwell’s termination had “absolutely nothing at all” to do with his work ethic.  These shifting explanations, the Fifth Circuit concluded, were sufficient evidence for a jury to find that the explanations were false and disability discrimination was the real reason for Caldwell’s termination.

Free Consultation With Ocala Disability Discrimination Attorneys   

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have more than fifteen years of experience representing employees who have been subjected to disability discrimination.  If you have been the victim of disability discrimination, or have questions about an employer’s shifting explanations for an employment decision, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Central Florida disability discrimination attorneys.  Our employee rights law firm takes disability discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis.  This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover. 

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