Taxi Driver Wins Disability Discrimination Case

On April 16, 2013, the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri issued a decision in favor of a taxicab driver in the disability discrimination case of State of Missouri v. Gateway Taxi Management Company d/b/a Laclede Cab Company. The case alleged that Laclede Cab unlawfully discriminated against Anatoly Sir based upon his disability when it failed to hire Sir as a taxicab driver. The case raised two significant issues that often arise in employment discrimination cases. First, Laclede Cab contended that its taxicab drivers were independent contractors, not "employees." Under the Missouri Human Rights Act ("MHRA"), which is Missouri's antidiscrimination statute, only individuals who are "employees" may claim the protections of the law. Therefore, Laclede Cab's argument was that Sir did not have a claim under the law. Second, Laclede Cab contended that even if its taxi drivers could be construed as employees who are entitled to the protections of the MHRA, Sir was not "disabled" within the meaning of the MHRA.

The Court first addressed the issue of whether Laclede Cab's taxicab drivers were, in fact, "employees." There is no bright-line rule for making the distinction between employees and independent contractors; it is a factual, case-by-case determination. Under Missouri law, an independent contractor is one who is hired to complete a specific task, use his/her own tools in completing the work, is paid a fixed sum on a by-the-job basis, and is not provided with benefits. The Missouri Commission on Human Rights originally found that Laclede Cab's taxicab drivers were employees, not independent contractors. Laclede Cab owned the taxicabs, it trained its drivers in how to perform their work, it dispatched its drivers based on their location, and the drivers worked full-time. The Court affirmed the findings and conclusions of the Commission. The Court's discussion on this issue, however, did highlight two important points. While the independent contractor analysis generally asks whether the putative employer controls the "manner and means" of the worker's performance, the Court indicated that it will accord less weight to the degree of control in employment discrimination cases brought under state law. Second, the Court made clear that the existence of a written independent contractor agreement will not be treated as dispositive. In other words, the existence of such an agreement is not sufficient to create an independent contractor relationship, and the law requires an analysis of the whether the actual situation amounts to an employment relationship as opposed to labels assigned by the parties.

The Court next addressed Laclede Cab's contention that Sir was not "disabled" within the meaning of the MHRA. Sir suffered from a stroke in 1998 but was able to continue working as a taxicab driver following his stroke. The MHRA defines the term "disability" as a "physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of a person's major life activities, which with or without reasonable accommodation does not interfere with performing the job." Thus, in order to be "disabled" under the MHRA, a person must have an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity but, with or without reasonable accommodation, does not impair his/her ability to perform the essential functions of the job. "Major life activities" include communication, ambulation, self-care, socialization, education, vocational training, and transportation. The Commission originally concluded that Sir was disabled because his stroke impaired at least one major life activity – walking. Because Sir was limited in his ability to walk from place to place, he was thus "disabled" within the meaning of the MHRA. The Court adopted the Commission's findings and conclusions on this point. Therefore, the taxicab driver, Sir, won his disability discrimination case on the merits.

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you or otherwise violated your employment rights in the workplace, you should contact a St. Louis employment lawyer.