Appellate Court Provides Alternative Cause of Action for Procedurally Barred ADA Claims

posted by Neil E. Klingshirn | March 18, 2019 in FMLA/Medical Leave

While workers employed by government entities and their agencies are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal appellate court recently expanded the grounds upon which an employee of such entities may bring a lawsuit.

Kaleena Bullington worked as a dispatcher for the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department in Tennessee for over 8 years.  During this time, Ms. Bullington was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  The treatment left her impaired by neuropathy and scar tissue in her lungs, which required her to receive extensive medical treatment.

Ms. Bullington alleged that the Sheriff’s Office was discriminating against her because of these conditions, and she sought the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). However, an employee is mandated to first file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) before taking an ADA claim to court against an employer.  Because Ms. Bullington did not file a charge with the EEOC, the District Court dismissed her claims under the ADA. 

The District Court also dismissed Ms. Bullington’s claim that the Sheriff’s Department, a public employer, violated her constitutional right to equal protection under the law, on the basis of her disability. The District Court held that the ADA precluded Ms. Bullington from bringing a constitutional claim, as Congress intended plaintiffs to recover under the ADA statute.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals gave Ms. Bullington a way forward with her constitutional claim, even though she could not pursue a claim under the ADA.  When a state or local government has deprived a private citizen of their constitutional rights, Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 provides for a cause of action.  42 U.S.C. § 1983.  Where Congress has enacted a specific statute protecting a constitutional right, such as the ADA, a court may assume that Congress meant to preclude any other form of recovery.

In this case, the Sixth Circuit had to determine whether Congress meant to preclude recovery under Section 1983, leaving the ADA as Ms. Bullington’s only route to recovery.  The Sixth Circuit allowed Ms. Bullington’s constitutional claim to proceed, holding that her Section 1983 claim turned on specifically alleged constitutional violations of her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection. Because a constitutional violation is analyzed differently from an ADA claim, Ms. Bullington’s claim under Section 1983 could proceed.

It should be noted that Ms. Bullington’s claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the ultimate success of her claim, have yet to be determined. 

Nonetheless, this decision marks a meaningful expansion of plaintiff’s potential causes of action against government employers.  Because the Sixth Circuit held that the ADA does not foreclose a constitutional equal protection claim, individuals with disabilities who work for government employers may be able to enforce their rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

(This is general legal information and is not offered as specific legal advice.  Do not rely on this information to make decisions about your rights.  If you have questions about disability discrimination in the workplace, contact an attorney)

Bullington v. Bedford Cty., Tenn., 905 F.3d 467 (6th Cir. 2018)

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