250px-US-CourtOfAppeals-10thCircuit-Seal2By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alexis P. Robertson

On March 16, 2015, in EEOC v. Beverage Distributors Co., LLC, No. 14-1012 (10th Cir. 2014), the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Tenth Circuit held that the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado erred by providing improper jury instructions on the direct-threat defense under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In rendering its decision, the Tenth Circuit clarified the direct-threat standard in a manner favorable to employers. The ruling is instructive for all employers involved in ADA litigation with the EEOC.

Case Background

A former employee of Beverage Distributors Corporation filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC after he was unable to secure employment in a new position with the company. The employee was legally blind. After his original position with Beverage Distributors was eliminated, he was able to secure a new job with the company. However, his new employment was conditioned upon passing a physical examination. Although he passed the physical exam, the examining doctor stated that the employee would require workplace accommodations to mitigate the risks from his impaired vision. Beverage Distributors concluded that it could not reasonably accommodate his conditions and rescinded the job offer. The employee subsequently filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC against Beverage Distributors. The EEOC then sued Beverage Distributors, on the employee’s behalf, under ADA.

At trial, amongst other things, Beverage Distributors asserted that the employee’s impaired vision created a significant risk of harm to him and others and no reasonable accommodation could reduce or eliminate that risk. The jury found that Beverage Distributors was liable for discrimination and that the employee’s condition did not pose a direct threat.  Beverage Distributors appealed to the Tenth Circuit, arguing that the direct-threat jury instruction constituted reversible error.

The Decision Of The Tenth Circuit

The Tenth Circuit ruled that the direct-threat jury instruction constituted reversible error because the district court inaccurately conveyed the direct-threat standard to the jury. Under the ADA, an employer may assert as an affirmative defense to a claim of discrimination, that it declined to hire an individual because the individual posed a “direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others.” Id. a 4. “A direct threat involves a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the person or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” Id.

The Tenth Circuit reasoned that direct-threat instruction, as delivered by the district court, did not accurately convey the direct-threat standard because it failed to communicate that proof of an actual threat was unnecessary.  The Tenth Circuit reasoned that Beverage Distributors should have avoided liability “if it had reasonably believed the job would entail a direct threat.” Id. at 6. It should not have been required to prove that the employee posed an actual direct threat. The jury instruction overstated Beverage Distributors’ burden. Further, the second portion of the jury instruction – which stated that the jury was to consider the reasonableness of Beverage Distributors’ belief regarding the existence of a direct threat – did not cure the error because the jury was never told why it was to consider the reasonableness of what Beverage Distributors thought. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit concluded that the error was not cured by the instruction regarding the reasonableness of the company’s subjective belief. The Tenth Circuit held that it had to reverse the jury’s verdict, because the jury could have been misled by the erroneous instruction.

Implications For Employers

This is a significant case in that it clarifies the direct-threat standard in a manner that is favorable for employers. As illustrated above, the key inquiry for the defense is the reasonableness of the employer’s belief regarding the direct-threat, and not whether there was in fact a direct threat posed. Employers and defense lawyers should take notice of this ruling and add it to their tool box when litigating cases under the ADA cases.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.