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Your Employee Matters


By April 1, 2013No Comments

In Lawler v. Montblanc, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of an employer where the evidence was insufficient, as a matter of law, to substantiate claims for disability discrimination, retaliation, and harassment. Montblanc North America, LLC (“Montblanc”) makes jewelry, timepieces, and other luxury products that it sells wholesale and in boutique stores. Montblanc employed plaintiff Cynthia Lawler as a manager at a store with a staff of six employees. Her duties included hiring, training, and supervising sales staff; administering stocking and inventory; cleaning; creating store displays; and preparing sales reports, all of which could only be performed in the store. The store earned one-third of its annual revenue between the Friday after Thanksgiving and January 2nd. Lawler worked between 60 and 70 hours per week during the holiday season.

On June 30, 2009, she was diagnosed with arthritis, for which her doctor recommended that she limit her work to twenty hours per week. On July 23, 2009, she requested a twenty-hour work week. On July 29, 2009, Montblanc requested that Lawler provide information regarding the nature, severity, and duration of her impairment, and what accommodations could be provided for her to perform the essential functions of her job.

A few days later, she fractured her foot in connection with her arthritis. Her doctor recommended that she not return to work until September 2, 2009. When Lawler returned to the store to fax the necessary paperwork to Montblanc’s Disability insurance company, the company’s President, Jan-Patrick Schmitz, arrived for a routine inspection, during which he criticized her non-work attire, disapproved of the merchandise displays, became angry when she tried to explain the displays, and made her walk around the store (during which time another employee stepped on her injured foot). Schmitz then requested a detailed report: when Lawler explained that she could not meet his request because she was on leave, he responded “you will do it or else.”

On August 11, 2009, Lawler sent a letter to Montblanc’s human resources representative expressing her concerns about Schmitz’s “abrupt,” “gruff” and “intimidating” behavior toward her during his store visit. The human resources representative did not investigate the allegations.

On September 2, 2009, Lawler’s doctor recommended an extended leave of absence until January 5, 2010. Montblanc requested a reasonable accommodation from the doctor that would permit her to resume her regular duties, and for a date on which she could return. The doctor replied that Lawler’s status had not changed, and that she had to remain on leave until January.

On October 31, 2009, Montblanc terminated her employment, explaining that it was essential for a manager to be in regular attendance at the store, and that because she would be unable to return to work until January, she needed to be replaced.

Lawler sued for disability discrimination, retaliation, harassment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted summary judgment for Montblanc, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

In affirming the discrimination claim, the court held that Lawler was not able to do her job “with or without reasonable accommodation,” because she admitted that her disability made it impossible for her to fulfill the duties of a store manager, regardless of an accommodation. As such, she could not meet her burden to prove that she was “qualified for the position,” an essential element of her claim.

The court also affirmed the retaliation claim, holding that Montblanc had a legitimate reason for terminating Lawler’s employment: she could no longer perform her duties as a store manager during the most critical time of the year. The court similarly affirmed summary judgment on her harassment claim, concluding that Schmitz’s conduct (criticizing Lawler’s work attire and the displays, and requesting the report) did not constitute “harassment” as a matter of law because his actions related exclusively to store operations and personnel management.

Finally, the court affirmed summary judgment on Lawler’s claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, holding that Schmitz’s alleged “gruff,” “abrupt,” and “intimidating” conduct did not exceed the bounds tolerated in a civilized community, and simply related to business operations and her performance as a manager.

Article courtesy of Thomas Ingrassia of Petit Kohn (