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Mazzeo v. Color Resolutions International, LLC, No. 12-10250 (11th Cir. Mar. 31, 2014)

As recently noted here (see entry for January 26, 2014), the U.S. Courts of Appeals are just now deciding the next generation of disabilities-discrimination law cases governed by the 2008 Americans With Disabilities Act amendments (ADAAA). Here, the Eleventh Circuit notes - in a case reversing summary judgment for an employee in chronic pain - that some of its prior, more restrictive case law must now be reconsidered. (And, as an added bonus, the employee also earns a reversal of his age discrimination claim.)

Mazzeo v. Color Resolutions International, LLC, No. 12-10250 (11th Cir. Mar. 31, 2014): The employee brought claims under the ADA, the ADEA and the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA), claiming that his termination was motivated both by his chronic back pain (and need for treatment) and his age (46). Mazzeo's "herniated disc caused pain along Mr. Mazzeo's lower back, which spread down his right leg and intermittently affected his ability to walk, sit, stand, bend, run, and lift objects weighing greater than ten pounds."

Mazzeo advised his employer that he needed back surgery, which in turn would necessitate two weeks of leave and three to six months of light duty. Then the troubles began. One day after telling his boss (Boyd) that he scheduled the back surgery, the boss initiated the paperwork for Mazzeo's discharge (for allegedly declining sales revenue). While the employer claimed that Mazzeo's job was being eliminated, the record reflected that a 23-year-old was hired ten days after Mazzeo's firing, allegedly to handle the same sales territory.

Mazzeo brought suit, only to have the district court grant summary judgment, holding that he could not show he was a "qualified individual with a disability" and that he could not state a prima facie case for age discrimination because his job was eliminated.

The Eleventh Circuit reverses both rulings. Regarding the ADA claim, the panel recognizes that the ADAA changed the lanscape of defining who is a disabled person under the protection of the act.  "When it enacted the ADAAA, Congress indicated that one of its purposes was to 'convey that the question of whether an individual's impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis.' 42 U.S.C. § 12101 note." Here, the employee presented an affidavit from his treating doctor (Dr. Roberts) describing his condition and affirming that "Mazzeo's pain would increase with prolonged sitting and standing." But the district court - applying pre-ADAAA case law - held that the restrictions were transitory and did not substantially limit his ability to work.

The Eleventh Circuit holds that it was error to rely on the prior case law:

"As noted earlier, the ADA now states that 'major life activities include, but are not limited to, . . . sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, . . . [and] bending[,]' 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(A), and Dr. Roberts stated in his affidavit that Mr. Mazzeo's disc herniation problems and resulting pain-which had existed for years and were serious enough to require surgery-substantially and permanently limited Mr. Mazzeo's ability to walk, bend, sleep, and lift more than ten pounds. Given the new standards and definitions put in place by the ADAAA, that evidence was enough for Mr. Mazzeo to present a prima facie case on his ADA and FCRA disability claims."

For good measure, that Eleventh Circuit also remands the ADEA claim. It holds that the district court misapplied case law that applies to true "reductions in force," where entire jobs are eliminated and employees are not replaced. In such cases, the Eleventh Circuit (and others) require employees to present - as part of the prima facie case - alternative evidence raising an inference of age bias or animus. The Eleventh Circuit holds that it was error to require such proof here, because the record bore an inference that the employee was replaced by an individual half his age:

"Shortly after his termination, the responsibilities and sales territory of Mr. Mazzeo were combined together with those of a retiring employee, Ms. Lumpkin. The duties of this consolidated position were no different from those of Mr. Mazzeo's original position, except inasmuch as the consolidated position necessarily encompassed a larger sales territory forged from the two constituent positions. CRI, moreover, hired Mr. Kyzer-a younger individual without any sales experience-shortly after Mr. Mazzeo's termination to assume this consolidated position. A reasonable jury, we think, could find that CRI, in giving Mr. Kyzer this consolidated position, replaced Mr. Mazzeo."

Under this record, the panel holds, the RIF analysis did not apply, and the plaintiff made out his prima facie burden.

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