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Austin v. Horizon Human Services Inc.

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 19, 2014

Gary Austin, Plaintiff,
Horizon Human Services Inc., Defendant.



The court has before it defendant Horizon Human Services, Inc.'s motion for summary judgment (doc. 42), plaintiff's response (doc. 48), and Horizon's reply (doc. 49). Plaintiff filed this action against his former employer Horizon Human Services, asserting discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

I. Background

Horizon is a non-profit behavioral health agency licensed by the State of Arizona to provide outpatient and residential mental health services. Horizon hired plaintiff on December 13, 2010, as a Behavioral Health Technician in its Payson, Arizona office. When he was hired, plaintiff received and signed Horizon's Employee Conduct Policy, which prohibited employees from engaging in social, business, or personal relationships with participants of Horizon's services.

Shortly after plaintiff was promoted to Case Manager on April 30, 2011, performance issues surfaced. On May 9, 2011, plaintiff received a Letter of Concern for his failure to timely complete clinical paperwork. On February 6, 2012, he received another Letter of Concern, this time for his failure to comply with Horizon's requirements regarding paperwork corrections. On February 9, 2012, plaintiff was placed on a formal Plan of Correction when it was discovered that he had taken steps to adopt a foster child who was a Horizon client. Plaintiff had spoken with the child, the child's foster parents, and Child Protective Services about adopting the child, all without informing his supervisor of his plans. As a result, Horizon was forced to terminate plaintiff's professional relationship with the child and the child's foster family.

As a condition of the formal Plan of Correction, plaintiff was placed on disciplinary probation and was required to receive individual supervision focused on employee conduct, dual relationships, and professional boundaries. Plaintiff was told that failure to complete the Plan of Correction would result in termination of his employment.

On March 23, 2012, while plaintiff was still on probation and under the Plan of Correction, plaintiff's son became ill and was hospitalized for four months. As a result of his son's illness, plaintiff requested and was granted intermittent leave. Horizon altered plaintiff's work schedule so that he only worked three days a week. Plaintiff's son's hospital bills exceeded $200, 000 a month.

In May 2012, plaintiff asked to be taken off probation. However, Horizon's CEO, Norman Mudd, extended plaintiff's probation until July 9, 2012, explaining that because plaintiff was working three days a week during much of the probation period, Horizon wanted more time to evaluate him. On June 14, 2012, plaintiff's coworker was promoted to the position of Program Coordinator.

In June 2012, Horizon discovered that plaintiff had misrepresented that he was authorized to oversee a client's court-ordered community service. Plaintiff knowingly created false documents representing to the client's probation officer that the client had performed community service work on specific days. As a result, plaintiff was terminated effective June 25, 2012. Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on July 17, 2012, alleging that he was fired because of the cost of his son's illness on Horizon's health plan.

After plaintiff was terminated, the local newspapers in Payson began running articles about plaintiff and his termination. On July 11, 2012, the Payson Roundup published an article stating that plaintiff "was fired for allegedly seeking to adopt a foster child he had counseled, " and that plaintiff suspected that the cost of his son's healthcare on Horizon's healthcare plan played a role in his termination. DSOF ¶ 27. The Payson Roundup published a second article on July 31, 2012, stating that plaintiff "believes he was fired because [his son's] medical crisis put an incredible strain on the company's medical insurance, which will certainly increase its insurance premiums." DSOF ¶ 28. Plaintiff also began posting comments on his Facebook page accusing Horizon of terminating him because of his son's medical bills.

On August 21, 2012, Horizon filed a defamation lawsuit against plaintiff in the Superior Court of Arizona in Gila County. On October 18, 2012, plaintiff filed this action against Horizon.

II. ADA Discrimination

Plaintiff alleges "association discrimination" under the Americans With Disabilities Act. He contends that Horizon discriminated against him because of his association with his son who has a disabling condition. The ADA prohibits employers from "excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(4). Title VII governs the analytical framework of the ADA. Raytheon Co. v. Hernandez , 540 U.S. 44, 49, 124 S.Ct. 513, 517 (2003); Budnick v. Town of Carefree , 518 F.3d 1109, 1113-14 (9th Cir. 2008). Therefore, in order to establish a prima facie claim of association discrimination under the ADA, plaintiff must show: (1) he was qualified to perform the job; (2) his employer knew he had a relative or associate with a disability; (3) he was subjected to an adverse employment action; and (4) there is a causal connection between the adverse employment action and the employee's association with a disabled person. See Den Hartog v. Wasatch Academy , 129 F.3d 1076, 1085 (10th Cir. 1997); E.R.K. ex rel. R.K. v. Hawaii Dept. of Educ. , 728 F.3d 982, 992 (9th Cir. 2013).

Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the defendant to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Pardi v. Kaiser Found. Hosps. , 389 F.3d 840, 849 (9th Cir. 2004). The burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to "demonstrate a triable issue of fact as to whether such reasons are pretextual." Id . Plaintiff must offer specific and substantial evidence of pretext in order to survive summary judgment. Noyes v. Kelly Servs. , 488 F.3d 1163, 1170 (9th Cir. 2007). An employer is only required to offer its honest ...

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