A Federal Court in Minnesota recently found that a UPS employee failed to deliver the goods on his disability discrimination claim after being fired for buying liquor with the company credit card.
As Regional Sales Manager for UPS, Michael Lansdale traveled quite a bit and therefore was given a corporate credit card to use for work-related expenses. Using the credit card for personal purchases was explicitly prohibited under UPS policies.
UPS Ships Employee Out
UPS noticed inconsistencies in Lansdale’s credit card use and expense reports, which prompted an internal investigation. UPS’s Security Investigator and HR Manager questioned Lansdale about the credit card and expense reports, and also about his personal life and drinking habits. Lansdale eventually signed a statement admitting that he used the credit card to hide alcohol-related purchases from his wife. The next day, UPS fired Lansdale.
Lansdale sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. He claimed that he was fired only after UPS learned that he drank too much. Therefore, he was discriminated against either because of his disability (alcoholism) or because UPS perceived him as disabled. Lansdale further contended that the interview questions about his drinking habits violated the ADA’s ban on disability-related inquiries. UPS countered that Lansdale was terminated for cause for failing to honor company policy regarding corporate credit card use.
After a full trial, a jury found for UPS on all counts. Lansdale then filed post-trial motions with Judge John R. Tunheim arguing that the jury’s verdict was inconsistent with the evidence presented and that the judge made legal errors during the course of the trial.
Motion To Overturn Jury Verdict Returned to Sender
Judge Tunheim first addressed Lansdale’s argument about the disability-related inquiries by finding that even if the inquiries were prohibited, Lansdale failed to prove they were the reason he was fired. The jury had sufficient basis to conclude that Lansdale’s termination resulted from the company’s investigative evidence of Lansdale’s violation of the credit card policy, and from his written confession of that violation.
As for the jury’s dismissal of the discrimination claims, the judge noted that while both Lansdale and his doctor testified that he drank more than he should, the doctor never provided a formal diagnosis of alcoholism and Lansdale failed to offer any expert testimony to persuade the jury that he actually was an alcoholic. Moreover, he offered no evidence that his drinking impaired a major life activity – a requirement for establishing that a medical condition is a recognized disability. Therefore, the jury was justified in finding that Lansdale was not disabled.
Judge Tunheim explained further that even if Lansdale was an alcoholic, or was perceived as such by UPS, there was more than enough evidence from which the jury could conclude that it was Lansdale’s job-related misconduct that caused his termination, not the fact that he suffered from (or might have been perceived as suffering from) a disability.
Finally, Lansdale argued that it was wrong that he was prevented from offering any evidence at trial relating to UPS’s failure to accommodate him. Judge Tunheim disagreed since Lansdale never requested an accommodation from UPS. The judge noted that it is the employee’s duty to alert the employer to the need for an accommodation and to provide sufficient information to the employer regarding the nature of the disability and its restrictions. Simply having a disability is not sufficient to obligate an employer to initiate the accommodation process.
Since Lansdale failed to show that the jury had no reasonable basis for their decisions, or that the judge ruled improperly in any determinative way, the jury verdict in favor of UPS was upheld.
No matter how many smoke screens the Lansdale tried to put up at trial, the judge had a clear view of the fact that UPS offered a cogent explanation and sufficient evidence of a legitimate basis for termination. That’s a package that usually delivers a winning defense.
We thank Summer Associate Kau Guannu for her substantial assistance in preparing this article.