International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners
Hearing Dog in Workplace Access Victory
Editor’s Introduction: Congratulations to Carol Christopherson! This hearing dog partner’s long battle with the US Post Office for Workplace Access ends in victory! To help others confronting workplace access challenges, we are reprinting the Appeal Court’s decision in its entirety below. (Taken from “Partners Forum”, Volume Nine, Number One, Fall 2002 )
WORKPLACE ACCESS VICTORY
IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
No. 01-14478 ..... D. C. Docket No. 99-00490-CV-J-25TJC-3
CAROL A. CHRISTOPHERSON, Plaintiff-Appellant,
versus JOHN E. POTTER, Postmaster General, Defendant-Appellee.
Appeal from the United States District Court
for the Middle District of Florida
(May 28, 2002)
Before DUBINA, BARKETT and KRAVITCH, Circuit Judges.
BARKETT, Circuit Judge:
Carol Christopherson ("Christopherson"), a hearing-impaired employee of the United States Postal Service ("USPS"), appeals the district court's denial of her motion for judgment as a matter of law and the subsequent entry of final judgment in favor of the USPS Postmaster General on her claims that the USPS violated the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §794, by failing to provide reasonable accommodations for her disability. Specifically, Christopherson alleged that the USPS discriminated against her on the basis of her hearing-related disability by denying her request to bring her service dog to work, an accommodation that would have enabled her to perform the essential functions, of her job. At the close of the presentation of the evidence to the jury, the district court denied both parties' motions for judgment as a matter of law and submitted the matter to the jury. Upon receiving the jury's first verdict, the district court determined that the verdict was inconsistent and therefore immediately resubmitted the matter to the jury for further consideration pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 49 . Neither party asked to see the first verdict or objected to the resubmission of the case to the jury.
Subsequent to the jury issuing its second verdict , the district court concluded that the first verdict had not been inconsistent, and thus found that there had been no basis upon which to resubmit the matter to the jury after the first verdict. Accordingly, the district court entered judgment for the USPS based upon the jury's first verdict.
Footnotes #1 and #2
[ Fn. 1] The jury used a special verdict form to render its determinations. Under a Rule 49(a) special verdict, "'the jury answers primarily factual questions for the benefit of the trial court which then applies the law to those answers." Lavoie v. Pacific Press & Shear Co. 975 F.2d. 48, 53 (2d Cir. 1992). The jury's first verdict consisted of answers to five questions. In response to the first question, the jury found that Christopherson was a "qualified individual." The jury then answered "'no" to both of the following questions:
2. [Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence] that the Plaintiff was unreasonably denied her request for a reasonable accommodation that would permit the Plaintiff to use a hearing dog[?]
3. [Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence] that the Defendant violated the Rehabilitation Act by failing to partake in an interactive process regarding the provision of a visual fire alarm and a system to inform Plaintiff of announcements[?]
Despite instructions on the jury form that stated that the jury should proceed no further if it answered "no" to Questions 2 and 3, the jury answered the remaining questions on the jury form. The jury answered "no" to Question 4, which asked whether the Plaintiff's disability was a substantial or motivating factor that prompted the Defendant to take that action. Once despite instructions to proceed no further if the jury answered "no" to
Question 4, the jury continued on to Question 5. In response to that question, the jury concluded that Christopherson was entitled to damages and awarded her $23,000 for lost wages and benefits.
Presumably, the district court perceived this verdict to be inconsistent because the jury found no grounds for holding the USPS liable yet awarded damages to Christopherson.
[ Fn. 2] In contrast to its first verdict, in the second verdict the jury answered "yes" to Question 2, concluding that Christopherson was unreasonably denied her request for a service dog, and answered "'yes" to Question 4, concluding that Christopherson's disability was a substantial or motivating factor prompting the USPS to deny her request. The jury again awarded Christopherson $23,000 in lost wages and benefits.
Christopherson first argues on appeal that the district court erred in denying her motion for judgment as a matter of law on the grounds that the USPS presented insufficient evidence to support a defense to her claims of failure to accommodate.
In the alternative, Christopherson contends that the district court erred in reconciling the first verdict and entering judgment in favor of the USPS because the first verdict was, as the district court initially proclaimed, inconsistent as a matter of law.
Moreover, Christopherson contends that the USPS waived any objection to the resubmission of the matter to the jury and thus should be bound by the jury's ultimate verdict.
We review de novo a district court's denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law, considering the evidence and the reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Middllebrooks v. Hillcrest Foods, Inc., 256 F.3d 1241, 1246 (11th Cir. 2001). Judgment as a matter of law "is appreciate only if the evidence is so overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party that a reasonable jury could not arrive at a contrary verdict." Id. Based on the record, we conclude that the USPS proffered insufficient evidence to support a defense to Christopherson's claim of disability discrimination, and find that a reasonable jury could not conclude that the USPS fulfilled its obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act. Accordingly, we find that the district court erred in denying Christopherson's motion for judgment as a matter of law.
There is no dispute that Christopherson is a "qualified individual" who was denied her request to bring her service dog to work, an accommodation that would have allowed her to perform the essential functions of her job. Christopherson thus identified a "reasonable accommodation," thereby shifting the burden of proof to the USPS to demonstrate that Christopherson's request constituted either an undue hardship or a direct threat. We find that the USPS failed to present any competent evidence to support either an undue hardship or a direct threat defense.
First, while an undue hardship defense is supported by evidence that an accommodation would be a financial or administrative burden, see Ornishea v. Hopper, 171 F.3d 1289, 1303 (11th Cir. 1999), the USPS presented no evidence regarding the cost of accommodating Christopherson's request for a service animal. Second, in mounting a direct threat defense, the USPS presented only generalized and lay evidence concerning the danger that any dog may pose to letter carriers. As the district court noted, the only evidence presented as to the USPS's safety concerns was that "an extraordinary number of their mail carriers are bitten by dogs and that dogs don't like mail carriers." The court also stated that there was no evidence that the risk of dog bites was heightened by the presence of the service or that a carrier is a greater risk on a mail route with a dog than she would be without a dog.
Because the "direct threat" determination "may not be based on generalizations or stereotypes about the effects of a particular disability ... [but rather] must be based on an individualized assessment ... [and] reasonable judgment that relies on current medical evidence or on the best available objective evidence," 28 C.F.R. pt. 35, App. A, §35.104 [Fn. 3], the USPS's lay and generalized evidence cannot support a direct threat defense. Given the lack of defensive evidence, the only verdict supported by the evidence is a verdict that the USPS violated the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation that constituted neither an undue hardship nor a direct threat.
Our review of the record, the case law, and the district court's own statements concerning the quality of the USPS's evidence, compels our conclusion that the district court erred in denying Christopherson's motion for judgment as a matter of law. We do not reach Christopherson's alternative arguments because our disposition of this issue renders those arguments moot.
Accordingly, we REVERSE and REMAND with instructions to the district court to enter judgment for Christopherson in the amount rendered by the jury.
[ Fn. 3] Although this C.F.R. section addresses nondiscrimination in the provision of state and local governmental services, the analysis of the direct threat defense should nonetheless apply to the instant case because "the standards adopted in this part [effectuating subtitle A of title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990] are generally the same as those required under section 504." 28 C.F.R. pt. 35, App. A, §35.103.
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