On July 31, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed a jury award of $225,000 in damages to a terminated employee-plaintiff who sued his former employer for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Stragapede v. City of Evanston, Illinois, No. 16-1344 (7th Cir. 7/31/2017). The plaintiff worked in the City of Evanston Water Department for 14 years. After he suffered a traumatic brain injury at home, the City placed him on temporary leave of absence. When he was cleared to return to work, he resumed full-time employment, but just a few weeks later, the City again placed him on administrative leave and subsequently terminated his employment. In federal court, the plaintiff alleged that the City discriminated against him and terminated his employment because of his disability.
After a week-long trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him $225,000 in damages for backpay plus interest from the date he was fired to the date of judgment. On appeal, the City argued that the plaintiff was not a qualified person under the ADA because he was unable to perform the essential functions of his job. The City also contended that he posed a direct threat to himself and others. The 7th Circuit rejected these positions. The ADA makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability on the basis of that disability. A qualified individual is one who is able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without reasonable accommodation. If an individual cannot perform his or her essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodations, he or she cannot recover under the ADA. The jury reasonably concluded, based on the evidence and its own credibility assessments of the witnesses, that the City’s position was invalid and unsupported by the evidence. The ADA also provides a defense if an employee’s disability poses a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace. A direct threat is a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a reasonable accommodation. The 7th Circuit concluded that the jury properly rejected the City’s position based on its evaluation of the evidence presented at trial.