Labor & Employment Law Daily Pharmaceutical scientist fired in a RIF year after ‘mental episode’ can’t revive ADA claims
Thursday, December 24, 2020

Pharmaceutical scientist fired in a RIF year after ‘mental episode’ can’t revive ADA claims

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

The employee failed to show that his termination in a reduction-in-force that impacted 11 percent of the company was pretext for disability discrimination.

Affirming summary judgment against the ADA and state-law disability discrimination claims of a pharmaceutical scientist, who alleged Biogen subjected him to a hostile work environment and fired him based on his disability—an acute mental episode—the First Circuit found that “after whittling the timeline of alleged actionable conduct to events that occurred within the limitations period,” there was no evidence of employment discrimination. Because the employee failed to show his termination stemmed from any disability-related discriminatory animus, it could not serve as the anchoring act for his hostile work environment claim (Brader v. Biogen Inc., December 18, 2020, Thompson, O.).

Presentation. The employee began working for Biogen in 2007 as a principal scientist within a group tasked with developing new drug candidates. In June 2014, he gave a presentation of his research to a meeting attended by senior management. The next day, a director, in an email to the employee’s supervisor, a senior director, and a senior VP, criticized the presentation. At a subsequent meeting between the employee and his supervisor, the supervisor called the presentation “terrible” and denounced the “harmful” and inappropriate “views and agenda” espoused therein. The supervisor again criticized his presentation at a follow-up meeting.

The employee then emailed and met in person with the supervisor and senior director, accused the supervisor of harassing him, claimed he didn’t feel safe because the supervisor was “deliberately targeting and humiliating him,” and accused him of crossing the line. Concerned with the employee’s agitation and jumbled speech, the senior director suggested he contact the EAP.

Acute reaction. The employee continued to send numerous unintelligible and rambling emails until ultimately, he was hospitalized and began a medical leave of absence in July. Later that month, his wife emailed HR and the employee’s supervisor, explaining that doctors believed he had contracted an “infection” and, consequently, suffered an “acute reaction to the medications” he was prescribed after back surgery earlier that year. He returned to work in September with no restrictions.

Crystallization project. Starting in March 2015, the employee began asking to present research on a crystallization project. Although his supervisor believed it was an innovative concept, he asked the employee not to share his ideas with senior leaders until after they could meet. Nonetheless, he presented his work to directors in June, where interest was expressed in the project. In September, however, the senior VP recommended that the employee be terminated in a reduction in force.

Terminated. The employee was laid off in October along with 11 percent of the company’s workforce. Three months later, Biogen advertised new positions seeking candidates with crystallization experience to serve as either a senior engineer or a post-doctoral student. He subsequently sued under the ADA and state law and the district court granted summary judgment to Biogen.

Wrongful termination. Addressing the employee’s wrongful termination claim, the appeals court assumed he established a prima facie case of disability discrimination. Because Biogen had proffered a legitimate reason for his termination—he was fired as part of a companywide RIF—the court turned to evidence of pretext. The employee pointed out that Biogen advertised two crystallization-experience-required jobs shortly after he was fired, which he argued showed the company still needed his skills. But even if Biogen determined there was no business case for his role on the crystallization and other innovation related projects, the court found its decision to reallocate resources to such projects after his termination, without more, did not raise a reasonable inference of discriminatory animus.

No pretext. Indeed, the court pointed out, Biogen not only underwent a RIF, it also undertook an entire rethinking of its business strategy. Further, in addition to the employee, his post-doctoral student also was terminated as part of the RIF. Moreover, not only was there testimony that the posted positions were not similar to the employee’s, there was no evidence that the post-RIF hiring was geared toward the same type of crystallization work the employee had pursued. Nor was he qualified for the posted senior engineer position as he was not an engineer.

Further, the employee failed to show the senior VP, who was the decisionmaker, considered him to be disabled such that a jury could infer the VP’s discriminatory animus prompted him to terminate the employee. Although he had been copied on some of the emails regarding the employee’s mental break, there was no evidence to show the VP believed it was more than just a temporary incident and the employee, upon his return, did not mention an ongoing disability or request an accommodation. Thus, the court affirmed summary judgment against this claim.

Hostile work environment. Turning to his hostile work environment claim, the employee did not contest the district court’s conclusion that the alleged discriminatory acts committed by Biogen in 2014, viewed in isolation, were time-barred. He argued, however, that a pattern of adverse employment actions, including Biogen’s failure to promote him, its decision to remove him from a project, its failure to investigate his safety and harassment complaints in violation of internal policy, his supervisor’s ongoing harassment, and his termination added up to the “cumulative effect” of an intolerable work environment.

To support his claim, the employee pointed to two anchoring timely incidents—his supervisor’s criticisms and alleged harassment in 2015 and his termination. As to his claims regarding his supervisor, there was no evidence regarding how his behavior constituted severe or pervasive harassment. Although the supervisor criticized the crystallization project, at the time it was leveled, the employee complained not of animus based on disability but that the supervisor was jealous and wanted to take undue credit for the employee’s work. There simply was no evidence, said the court, that the alleged conduct amounted to anything other than the supervisor levying criticisms and voicing concerns as he performed his duties as a supervisor.

No impermissible motivation. Nor was there any evidence of impermissible motivation, said the court, noting that as for the supervisor’s management style, the employee complained that he was ill-tempered toward him before he showed any signs of a mental disability. And while the employee also pointed to his termination as anchoring hostile work environment conduct, the court pointed out that its earlier wrongful discharge analysis dispensed with his claim he offered sufficient evidence to show that his termination stemmed from disability-related discriminatory animus. Accordingly, the court affirmed summary judgment against this claim as well.

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