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Alfa Insurance Did Not Discriminate Against Worker with MS, Appeals Court Finds *Centurion Insurance AFS*

Feb 21, 2024 (0) comment , , , , , , , ,

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Alfa Insurance, one of the largest property/casualty insurers in Alabama, did not discriminate against an employee with multiple sclerosis and did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal appeals court affirmed.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals underlined a distinction between the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires that plaintiffs show only that a disability was a motivating factor in a worker’s termination, not the chief cause.

“If Congress intended to retain, clarify, or add the motivating-factor standard to the ADA, it could have simply added that language, like it did in its 1991 amendments to Title VII,” appeals court Judge Frank Hull wrote for the three-judge panel last week. “We presume this choice was intentional, and we decline to add language to the ADA that Congress chose not to include.”

Plaintiff Jennifer Akridge filed suit under the ADA in 2017, arguing that she was illicitly fired so that the self-insured Alfa could avoid paying medical treatment costs for her MS and severe migraines, which topped $10,000 a month. Alfa countered that Akridge’s work duties had been automated, her position was no longer needed, and the company had no direct knowledge of her medical costs, which were administered by BlueCross BlueShield of Alabama.

The District Court for Middle Alabama sided with the insurance company and the 11th Circuit upheld the ruling.

Akridge began work for Montgomery-based Alfa in 1989. Four years later, she was diagnosed with MS and migraines, the appeals court explained. But she kept working and by 2015, she was in Alfa’s auto insurance underwriting department, assisting agents to identify profitable policies. She also devised underwriting manuals, verified proof of insurance for lawsuits, assisted with rate filings and generally excelled at her job, the judges wrote.

In one year, she estimated that she had reduced Alfa’s losses by $2 million.

In the mid-2010s, Alfa began implementing and using the Guidewire software, which automated a number of company processes and is widely used in the industry today. Notably, it allowed agents and managers to access strategic underwriting information that Akridge had previously compiled, the court said. With the system, Alfa did not have enough “spare responsibilities” to keep Akridge’s position, P/C operations Vice President Beth Chancey testified.

The new software also had cost the carrier almost twice what was expected – as much as $160 million – and the company needed to save money, the court explained.

Akridge argued in the litigation that the carrier had told employees to see doctors only when necessary and that health care costs were rising. She acknowledged in court, however, that she did not know if a human resources officer was aware of her specific medical costs, but gave examples of times when company documents had highlighted some workers’ health coverage expenses. She also pointed to other employees in similar roles, who had no disabilities, but who were not terminated.

The lower court found that Akridge’s comparisons were not similar enough to her situation: Some of the workers were in homeowners insurance underwriting, which was not as automated. She also failed to prove that Alfa officials knew of her large medical expenses.

The appellate judges upheld the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Alfa. The judges also noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act carries an “imposing” but-for causation standard: Plaintiffs must show that the adverse employment action would not have happened but for the worker’s disability.

That standard was softened somewhat in 2008, when Congress amended the law to bar discrimination “on the basis of disability” instead of “because of a disability.” But the 11th Circuit concluded that the change in wording did not negate the ADA’s but-for standard.

“The problem for Akridge is that the employee-friendly, motivating-factor standard does not apply to ADA claims, as this standard is drawn directly from the text of Title VII” of the civil rights law, the circuit judges said.

And when Congress added the “motivating factor” wording to the Civil Rights Act in 1991, it also amended the ADA – but did not add that standard to the disabilities statute.

The appeals court said that Akridge failed to show that Alfa officials had offered false information about the reasons for her termination, noting that she had worked there for many years – with large health expenses – before she was let go. Alfa also continued her COBRA coverage for nine months after her termination.

Appellate Judge Nancy Abudu dissented slightly, writing that the ADA does, in fact, allow a motivating-factor standard, but Akridge had failed to meet even that hurdle.

“Congress, through the ADA’s ‘motivating factor’ standard, recognized the reality that many employees with disabilities face—that an employer may have or (may) manufacture multiple reasons to fire someone, but if one of those reasons is related to a person’s disability, the employer’s behavior is unlawful,” Abudu said. “Nevertheless, Akridge’s ADA claim still cannot survive.”

Topics
Mississippi
Alabama

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