A Belfast man who lost his unemployment discrimination case in federal court two years ago over his disability has been granted a new trial because of faulty jury instructions.
Brian Bell, 32, sued his former employer, O’Reilly Auto Parts in Belfast, in 2016 after he allegedly was fired when he sought an accommodation for his mental health issues, including Tourette’s syndrome and depression. Bell sought to limit his scheduled hours to 45 hours per week rather than the nearly 100 hours he had been working due to a staff shortage.
A federal jury in Bangor ruled in favor of the auto parts store on July 20, 2018, following a week-long trial. Bell appealed the decision the following November. A three-judge panel with the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Boston last September.
In a rare reversal, the appeals court found on Friday that U.S. District Judge Jon Levy incorrectly told jurors that to find in Bell’s favor they had to conclude he needed an accomodation to do his job and could not fulfill the requirements of a manager’s position without one. In reversing the verdict, the judges found that under the Maine Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Bell had to prove three things: that he was handicapped within the meaning of those laws; that he was qualified to perform the job with or without an accommodation; and that his employer knew about the disability and failed to accommodate it, Judge Michael Boudin wrote for the appellate court.
“An employee who can, with some difficulty, perform the essential functions of his job without accommodation remains eligible to request and receive a reasonable accommodation,” the judge said. “The ADA prohibits an employer from ‘not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or an employee.’”
Bell’s attorney, Allan Townsend of Portland, said the case is important not just for his client but for the rights of all disabled workers.
“The First Circuit’s decision makes clear that employers may not refuse to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are struggling through pain or stress to perform their jobs,” he said. “If reasonable accommodations would relieve this pain or stress, an employer must provide those accommodations to the disabled employee.”
Christopher Taintor of Portland, who represented the auto parts store, declined on Tuesday to comment on the reversal.
A date for the retrial has not been set.
Bell now works for athenahealth in Belfast, according to his lawyer.