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Hostettler v. The College of Wooster

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

July 17, 2018

Heidi Hostettler, Plaintiff-Appellant,
The College of Wooster, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: March 9, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Akron. No. 5:15-cv-01601-John R. Adams, District Judge.


          Daniel P. Petrov, THORMAN PETROV GROUP CO., LPA, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellant.

          Peggy J. Schmitz, CRITCHFIELD, CRITCHFIELD & JOHNSTON, LTD., Wooster, Ohio, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Daniel P. Petrov, Lara S. Nochomovitz, THORMAN PETROV GROUP CO., LPA, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellant.

          Peggy J. Schmitz, Kimberly L. Hall, CRITCHFIELD, CRITCHFIELD & JOHNSTON, LTD., Wooster, Ohio, for Appellee.

          Before: DAUGHTREY, GIBBONS, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.



         Heidi Hostettler was fired from the College of Wooster's Human Resources Department when she was unable to return to work on a full-time basis as she was recovering from postpartum depression and separation anxiety. She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213 (2012); Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e-17; the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654; and Chapter 4112 of the Ohio Revised Code.[1] The district court granted summary judgment to Wooster on all claims. The lynchpin of the district court's decision was its conclusion that Hostettler did not make out a prima facie case under the ADA because she could not meet an essential function of the position-full-time work-and so was not otherwise qualified for the job. Because genuine disputes of material fact remain, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for trial.


         Background of the ADA

         Nearly one in every five Americans has a disability. Matthew W. Brault, U.S. Census Bureau, Americans With Disabilities: 2010 4 (2012). Yet at the time of the last census report, a mere 41% of people with disabilities between the ages of 21 and 64 were employed. Id. Although "physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person's right to fully participate in all aspects of society," 42 U.S.C. § 12101(a)(1), these numbers reflect the harsh reality that "people with disabilities, as a group, occupy an inferior status in our society, and are severely disadvantaged . . . economically," id. § 12101(a)(6).

         Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 to "assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency" for individuals with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 12101(a)(8) (pre-2008 amendments). To that end, the law broadly prohibits "discriminat[ion] against a qualified individual on the basis of disability" as it applies to aspects of employment including hiring, advancement, and firing. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a).

         But years of court decisions narrowly defining who qualifies as an individual with disabilities left the ADA too compromised to achieve its purpose. In response, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) to invalidate those decisions and to "restore the intent and protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act." Pub. L. No. 110-325, 122 Stat. 3553. In passing the ADAAA, Congress reasserted its goal of "provid[ing] clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards" to implement a "comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities." 42 U.S.C. § 12101(b)(1), (2). It is against that background that this case must be viewed.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Heidi Hostettler was hired as an HR Generalist by the College of Wooster in late summer 2013. At the time that she was interviewed and took the position, she was four-months pregnant. Throughout the hiring process, Hostettler was open about her pregnancy. And during negotiations, when Hostettler and Wooster's HR team discussed leave, Hostettler was told that they would be willing to accommodate her pregnancy. Wooster's official policy was to allow new employees 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave under the FMLA, even if they did not otherwise qualify for leave under the law.

         For the first five months-before her maternity leave-Hostettler's employment seemed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. As an HR Generalist, Hostettler helped managers with employee relations, including performance-improvement plans; participated in recruiting new hires for the college; and designed training programs, among other duties. She worked full-time, regularly from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but sometimes until 6:00 p.m. And when necessary, she organized trainings or answered email and phone calls in the evenings and on the weekends. Although Hostettler was working more than 40 hours per week, she contends that the job required "probably thirty, thirty-five" hours a week. She explained that in the extra time she sought out more work so that she could have something to do.

         Hostettler started her maternity leave at the beginning of February and took her full 12 weeks. She was slated to return to work at the end of April. But as the time to return to work approached, Hostettler experienced severe postpartum depression and separation anxiety. Hostettler's OB/GYN, Dr. David Seals, testified that "she had one of the worst cases of separation anxiety" that he had ever seen. Seals explained that she did not seem like herself and that she cried during almost every appointment with him. He prescribed her an antidepressant.

         Seals also thought that it would be a bad idea for Hostettler to return to work right away, and testified that he believed that "it was medically necessary that [Hostettler] could work a reduced schedule." He suggested that she return to work on a part-time basis for the "foreseeable future." He thought that Hostettler would be able to return to work on a full-time basis in "a month or two," and that the symptoms of postpartum depression and separation anxiety rarely last longer than six months.

         Concerned that she could not return to work, Hostettler met with her direct supervisor, Marcia Beasley, and explained how she was doing and that she would need more time before coming back. According to Hostettler, Beasley was "sympathetic and understood." And so Hostettler did not return to work at the end of April.

         In the beginning of May, Seals submitted to Wooster an Intent to Return to Work Form (under the FMLA), stating that Hostettler needed to work a reduced schedule of three days a week but put no restrictions on her work activities. When Hostettler returned to work, Beasley recommended that instead of working two or three full days a week, Hostettler work five half days a week. Seals submitted an addendum to his certification, advising five half-time days a week. In response, Wooster informed Hostettler that it would accommodate her part-time schedule until June 30, at which time she should submit an updated certification from her doctor. Hostettler returned to work in late May, having been on leave longer than the originally agreed 12 weeks.

         The parties disagree over what happened during the following two months. Hostettler continued to suffer from depression and anxiety. And if she had to work much later than noon- her modified stop time-she would have panic attacks, during which she would have difficulty breathing, thinking, and even walking. But with an accommodated schedule, Hostettler contends that she was able to do everything required of her position. She stated that she responded to all employee-relations issues, organized required trainings, and handled recruiting matters. And if an issue arose when she was out of the office, she either would handle it by answering emails in the evening or Beasley would ask her to address it the next morning. When another HR employee went on maternity leave, Hostettler contends that she did not "feel[] the pinch" of the department being down another employee. Nor was Hostettler aware of any problems in the department, in part because Beasley never mentioned any in their conversations.

         One of Hostettler's colleagues, Natalie Richardson, agreed with Hostettler's assessment of her work situation. In a declaration, Richardson explained that she believed that Hostettler could do much of her work from home-a common practice in the department-and knew that Hostettler was in fact replying to work emails in the evenings when on her modified schedule. Richardson also explained that during Hostettler's modified schedule, she was not aware of any "employee relations, recruiting, or training issues, programs, or assignments that Ms. Hostettler failed to complete." And more broadly, Richardson was "unaware ...

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