Law School Case Brief
Brunckhorst v. City of Oak Park Heights - 914 F.3d 1177 (8th Cir. 2019)
To prove a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must show (1) that he or she engaged in statutorily protected activity, (2) an adverse employment action was taken against him or her, and (3) a causal connection exists between the two events.
Plaintiff-appellant Gary Brunckhorst filed this employment discrimination suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. § 363A.01 et seq., against his former employer, defendant-appellee City of Oak Park Heights (the City). The district court granted summary judgment to the City.
Brunckhorst worked for the City for more than 165 years. In April 2014, he was serving as the Senior Accountant/Payroll Technician, a position that paid $72,000 per year and required him to perform payroll and information technology functions. Brunckhorst requested and was approved for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) on April 16, 2014. Three months later, City Administrator Eric Johnson informed Brunckhorst that his FMLA leave had been exhausted and that he was eligible to request unpaid leave for up to 90 days under a city ordinance. Brunckhorst requested unpaid leave under the ordinance, and Johnson granted his request for 60 days with the possibility of 30 additional days thereafter.
Johnson sent Brunckhorst an updated job description for the Senior Accountant position on September 15, 2014. The description set forth all of the duties that he had been performing. Johnson asked Brunckhorst to provide documentation from his doctor regarding whether Brunckhorst was able to perform the essential functions of the position. Brunckhorst responded with a letter from his doctor stating that Brunckhorst could not return to work within 30 days and requested extended leave. Johnson granted his request. Johnson again wrote to Brunckhorst about his condition on October 24 and requested that his doctor fill out a Medical Certification form. Brunckhorst replied with a doctor's note stating that Brunckhorst might be able to return to work on December 1. On November 14, Johnson extended Brunckhorst's leave up to December 1 and requested additional medical documentation. Brunckhorst's doctor returned a form on November 24 stating that Brunckhorst might be able to return to work on January 1. Johnson informed Brunckhorst that the Senior Accountant position had been eliminated and allowed him to choose between the new position or a severance package. Brunckhorst replied that he wanted to remain in his original position. Brunckhorst testified that he had complained at the meeting that he was being discriminated against because of his disability.
Brunckhorst claims that the City violated the ADA and MHRA because it failed to offer reasonable accommodation and to engage in an interactive dialogue, it terminated his employment because of his disability, and it retaliated against him for complaining of disability discrimination.
Did terminated employee Brunkhorst, who was terminated from his position with the City, prove his various claims of discrimination, including a clam for retaliatory discharge?
Upon de novo review, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that plaintiff-appellant Brunkhorst's claims under the ADA and the MHRA failed and, thus, affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant-appellee City. First, applying a burden-shifting analysis, the Court rejected Brunkhorst's failure to accommodate claim. The City's proposed accommodation was consistent with the doctor's decision that Brunckhorst be allowed to work four hours per day up to May 18, 2015; further, working remotely was not an option for the job. Second, applying a three-part test to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination, the Court found that the evidence did not support an inference of discrimination; thus, Brunckhorst did not show discriminatory termination. Next, the Court rejected the claim that the City failed to engage in an interactive dialogue with Brunkhorst. Applying a four-part test, the Court found no genuine issue of material fact that the City engaged in anything but a good-faith interactive dialogue. Finally, as for Brunkhorst's argument that the City terminated his employment because he complained of disability discrimination, the Court found that Brunckhorst failed to show any causal connection between his complaint of discrimination and his termination. Without more, the four-month period between his first complaint of discrimination and his termination was not sufficient to establish causation through temporal proximity. Applying a three-part test, the Court found that the City did not terminate Brunkhorst's employment until he continuously rejected the City's proposed accommodations and did not return to work; thus, his retaliation claim failed.
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