Federal Court Allows Ex-Worker to Bring ADA Suit For Discriminatory Benefits

November 26, 2001 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A federal appeals court has changed its mind -- rejecting its own precedent and reinstating a Tampa lawsuit by a former Kmart manager who is suing for benefits under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

The decision of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Johnson v. K Mart Corp. revolves around two questions, whether:

  • former employees can sue under the ADA, and if
  • workers can sue when employers offer different levels of benefits for physical and mental disabilities

The split three-judge panel sent the case of James Johnson back to federal court in Tampa for fresh consideration.

Case Brief

Johnson, a 30-year employee of Kmart and a manager of a store in Tampa, quit on his doctor’s advice in 1997 due to severe depression. However, he sued the following year because his employer offered much better benefits to people who leave with physical rather than mental disabilities. Specifically, Kmart offers salary replacement until age 65 for people with physical disabilities but just two years of such benefits for those who leave with mental disabilities.

The court relied on a US Supreme Court decision in a 1999 ADA case, as well as a 1997 civil rights case, in forming its new decision — finding that the employer’s “two-tier benefit system” appears to treat recipients differently, violating the ADA.

Federal courts have split on the impact of employment status, with two other US Circuit Courts supporting the right of ex-employeees to sue under the ADA and a third one barring such actions, according to the Associated Press.

The decision was written by US District Judge Louis Pollak, visiting from his normal Philadelphia base. Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote a concurring opinion, while Circuit Judge Ed Carnes dissented strictly for the reversal of the appellate court’s precedent.

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, located in Atlanta, Georgia, has jurisdiction over matters litigated in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

– Nevin Adams                         editors@plansponsor.com