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Paraskevopoulos v. Central Maine Medical Center

United States District Court, D. Maine

September 25, 2019




         In this disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation case, an employer has made a limited objection to the Magistrate Judge’s recommended decision, recommending the denial of its partial motion for summary judgment. Specifically, the employer objects to the Magistrate Judge’s conclusion regarding the proper legal standard to apply to the employee’s disability discrimination claim under the Rehabilitation Act. The employer says that the proper legal standard is “solely by reason of, ” requiring the employee to prove that the alleged discrimination was the sole cause of his harm, and that the Magistrate Judge applied a lesser standard- that the employee only need show that the discrimination was based “in whole or in part” on his disability.

         The Court views the Magistrate Judge’s recommended decision as to all elements of the employer’s partial summary judgment motion as thorough and correct, and the Court affirms its decision without repeating its logic. See Talbott v. C.R. Bard, Inc., 63 F.3d 25, 31 (1st Cir. 1995). Nevertheless, the Court writes briefly to expand on the Magistrate Judge’s discussion of the causation standard under the Rehabilitation Act for disability discrimination claims in light of the employer’s objection and the employee’s response. However, the Court declines to issue a ruling on which legal standard should be applied to the Rehabilitation Act claim because it views such a ruling as a constitutionally impermissible advisory opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. CMMC’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

         Central Maine Medical Center (CMMC) moved for summary judgment on the claims that comprise Count One of Leo S. Paraskevopoulos’ complaint: “disability discrimination, failure to accommodate and retaliation under the Maine Human Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; interference and retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act and the Maine Family Medical Leave Requirements; and punitive damages.” Def.’s Partial Mot. for Summ. J. at 2 (ECF No. 69) (Def.’s Mot.).

         In relevant part, CMMC argued that Dr. Paraskevopoulos “cannot establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination and, even if he could, the evidence shows that his employment was terminated because of his performance deficiencies.” Id. at 5. CMMC applied the “sole cause” causation standard under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Id. at 6. Thus, according to CMMC, the disability discrimination claim fails under “the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.” Id.

         B. Leo S. Paraskevopoulos’ Objection to CMMC’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

         Dr. Paraskevopoulos responded that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether CMMC discriminated against him because of his disability, stating that a reasonable jury could find that (1) he was disabled, (2) he was capable of performing the essential functions of his job as a family practice resident, (3) he was terminated because of his disability, and (4) CMMC’s stated reason for firing him-“performance deficiencies” -was pretextual. Id. at 23-28.

         In making this argument, Dr. Paraskevopoulos rejected the “sole cause” standard that CMMC applied, pointing out that “the only case cited by CMMC does not hold that sole causation is the standard in a discrimination claim under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, but instead specifically states, to the contrary, that the causation standard under Section 504 is an ‘open question’” not reached in the case. Id. at 23-24 (quoting Leary v. Dalton, 58 F.3d 748, 752 (1st Cir. 1995)). Dr. Paraskevopoulos asserted that instead “this Court should effectuate Congress’s intent by applying the ADA’s motivating-factor causation standard for substantive discrimination under both statutes.” Id. at 24. However, even if the Court applied the “sole cause” standard, Dr. Paraskevopoulos stated, “the evidence is more than sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude that [Dr. Paraskevopoulos] was terminated ‘solely because of’ his disability.” Id.

         C. CMMC’s Reply to Leo S. Paraskevopoulos’ Objection to CMMC’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

         In reply, CMMC asserted that the “sole cause” standard, not the “motivating-factor causation standard, ” applies to the claims under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act based on the “plain language of the statutes and the applicable case law.” Id. at 3-5 (citing, among other cases, Soledad v. U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, 304 F.3d 500, 505 (5th Cir. 2002)). CMMC rejected Dr. Paraskevopoulos’ statement that the standard is an open question in the First Circuit by citing case law applying the sole causation standard to non-employment discrimination. Id. at 5 (citing Lesley v. Hee Man Chie, 250 F.3d 47, 53 (1st Cir. 2001), and Maine Human Rights Comm’n v. Sunbury Primary Care, P.A., 770 F.Supp.2d 370, 408 (D. Me. 2011)). CMMC added that Dr. Paraskevopoulos failed to meet the “sole cause” standard because his arguments only prove that he was terminated “because of his disability.” Id. at 5 (emphasis in original) (quoting Pl.’s Obj. at 26).

         D. Magistrate Judge’s Recommended Decision

         The Magistrate Judge recommended that the Court deny CMMC’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment “except to the limited extent that it is conceded by [Dr. Paraskevopoulos]”:

Specifically, [he] recommend[s] that the Court grant the defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment with respect to (i) the plaintiff’s MHRA and ADA claims based on discrete adverse actions that occurred more than 300 days before his MHRC complaint was filed and (ii) any requested punitive damages pursuant to his Rehabilitation Act, FMLA, and MFMLR claims, and otherwise deny it.

Rec. Dec. on Def.’s Mot. for Partial Summ. J. at 2 (ECF No. 107) (Rec. Dec.).

         The Magistrate Judge applied the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting approach to Dr. Paraskevopoulos’ disability discrimination claim. Id. at 14. The Magistrate Judge determined that Dr. Paraskevopoulos met all three elements of a prima facie case of discrimination. Id. at 15-20. The Magistrate Judge concluded that “a reasonable juror could find that [Dr. Paraskevopoulos’] disability was the sole cause of his termination, ” pointing out that CMMC “relies heavily on statements of material facts that are either qualified or denied, ” that Dr. Paraskevopoulos’ argument that his disability caused his performance issues created a triable issue, and that Dr. Paraskevopoulos argued that CMMC “expressed overt hostility toward his disability.” Id. at 19-20. The Magistrate Judge noted that, although the parties disagree as to what causation ...

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