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Decided: March 4, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

In July 2007, Plaintiff, Judith Gentry fell at work, injuring her foot and ankle.  Gentry then filed for workers’ compensation benefits.  In October 2008, Gentry had to have surgery and her doctor concluded that she had a thirty percent permanent physical impairment to her ankle.  The insurance carrier offered to settle Gentry’s claim, but Gentry declined.  In November 2010, Gentry’s workers’ compensation claim was settled and in December 2010, Gentry was terminated.  Defendant stated that Gentry was terminated as part of a restructuring plan to reduce costs.  However, Gentry sued Maggie Valley and East West for (1) disability discrimination under the ADA and North Carolina common law; (2) sex discrimination under Title VII and North Carolina common law; and (3) retaliation against Gentry for pursuing a workers’ compensation claim, in violation of North Carolina common law.  Gentry also sued East West and Manner, her boss, for tortiously interfering with her employment contract with Maggie Valley.  At trial, Gentry was awarded $10,000 for the workers’ compensation claim and $10,000 for Defendant’s tortiously interfering with Gentry’s employment.  However, the jury found in favor of the Defendants on all of the other claims.  Gentry moved for a new trial, which the district court denied.

On appeal, Gentry argues that the district court incorrectly instructed the jury on the causation standard for disability discrimination claims under the ADA.  The district court instructed the jury on a “but-for” standard but Gentry argued that the jury should have been instructed on a motivating factor standard.  The Court, relying on Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., concluded that Title VII’s motivating factor standard could not be read into Title I of the ADA and that the district court correctly applied a “but-for” standard.  Gross instructed courts to follow closely to the text of employment discrimination statutes.  Further, the Court concluded that a “but for” causation standard was required because the legislative history did not suggest that “on the basis of” was intended to mean something other than “but-for” causation.

Also, Gentry challenged the district court’s instructions on the definition of disability.  The ADA defined disability as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of [an] individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.”  Gentry disputed the definition of “substantially limits” and the court’s instructions on “regarded as” and “record of” disability.  The Court concluded that Gentry did not show that the instruction affected her substantial rights because the jury could have found that her termination was not the result of the impairment to her foot, regardless of how severe.  Further, the Court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in this instruction and that no serious prejudice to Gentry warranted vacating the verdict on her disability discrimination claims.  Finally, Gentry argued that the district court improperly shortened the definition of “record of” disability.  However, the Court concluded that there was no error because Gentry did not object to the instruction.

Gentry further argued that the district court erred in refusing to admit evidence of Defendants’ liability insurance and indemnification. The jury was instructed that it could award damages for back pay, front pay, emotional pain and suffering, and nominal damages.  The jury was also instructed that Gentry had to mitigate her damages using reasonable diligence.  Gentry argued that the award was tainted because of the Defendants’ belaboring of their poor financial condition.  However, the Court concluded that the evidence was central to their defense that Gentry was terminated as part of a plan to reduce costs.  Additionally, the Court concluded that there was no abuse in the refusal to admit evidence of the insurance coverage and indemnification.

Finally, Gentry argued that she was entitled to a new trial on damages because the award was inadequate.  To grant a new trial Gentry needed to show that (1) the verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence, or (2) was based upon evidence, which was false, or (3) would result in a miscarriage of justice.  The Court concluded that Gentry did not meet this burden because the jury could have inferred that Gentry’s salary would have decreased as part of the plan to reduce costs.  The jury could have also found that she did not mitigate her damages when she obtained a part time job.  Therefore, the Court affirmed the district court’s denial of Gentry’s motion for a new trial.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Full Opinion

Alicia E. Morris