TJOFLAT, Circuit Judge:
This case began when Lea Cordoba sued Dillard's, Inc. in September 2001, asserting claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA), Fla. Stat. § 760.01 et seq. In February 2003, the district court granted Dillard's motion for summary judgment on all claims, Cordoba v. Dillard's, Inc., 2003 WL 21295143 (M.D.Fla. Feb.24, 2003), and we affirmed in an unpublished opinion, 82 Fed.Appx. 219 (11th Cir.2003). While Cordoba's appeal from the order granting summary judgment was still pending, Dillard's filed a motion in the district court seeking attorney's fees and litigation expenses from Cordoba and her attorneys under the ADA's fee-shifting provision, 42 U.S.C. § 12205; 28 U.S.C. § 1927; and the court's inherent power. The district court granted Dillard's motion, Cordoba v. Dillard's, Inc., 2003 WL 21499011 (M.D.Fla. June 12, 2003), and subsequently ordered Cordoba to pay $10,000 in attorney's fees and litigation expenses and $9,579.95 in costs
A. Cordoba's Termination
In October 1997, Dillard's hired Cordoba as a sales associate in the lingerie department of its store in the Seminole Towne Center shopping mall in Sanford, Florida. The position required no special skills, and the parties agree that Cordoba was a competent employee. Cordoba earned between $8 and $9.70 per hour while at Dillard's.
Cordoba was one of about 250 employees in the Sanford store. The store is managed by a store manager, who is assisted by an operations manager. The operations manager has the authority to discipline and terminate employees. Each department within the store is managed by an area sales manager (ASM), who reports directly to the store manager. At the time of Cordoba's termination, her immediate supervisor was Tambrina Stossel, the ASM in charge of the lingerie department. The store's operations manager was Kathy Groo.
On June 17, 2000, a customer approached Cordoba to return a nightgown. Because Cordoba had some concerns as to whether the nightgown matched the customer's receipt or was even Dillard's merchandise, she felt that she should consult an ASM before accepting it for a refund. Stossel was not in the store, so Cordoba called Edye Sebben, the ASM in charge of another department. Cordoba claims that Sebben was rude to her and caused unnecessary delay in processing the return. Sebben, however, says that she was completely professional and that Cordoba inexplicably refused to give her necessary information about the nightgown over the phone. In any event, Sebben eventually authorized a refund and, sensing that Cordoba was unhappy, asked Cordoba whether she liked working at Dillard's. Cordoba, in essence, replied that she hated
Cordoba insists that she gave a "sarcastic" response to what she perceived to be Sebben's unwarranted hostility. Sebben, in contrast, took Cordoba's declaration at face value and said that she was "shocked." Sebben mentioned the incident to Stossel when she saw her two days later. Stossel, in turn, insisted on taking the matter to Groo. After Sebben and Stossel related the incident to Groo, Groo asked Stossel to accompany Cordoba to Groo's office to discuss the matter.
When Stossel and Cordoba arrived in Groo's office, Groo asked Cordoba about the incident with Sebben, and Cordoba admitted saying that she hated working at Dillard's. Groo says that she "was surprised that [Cordoba] had no explanation ... or apology" for her behavior. Cordoba, however, says that she explained that Sebben had "verbally attacked" her and that her response was merely sarcastic. In any event, Groo, Cordoba, and Stossel all agree as to what transpired next: Groo told Cordoba that if she did not like her job, she could no longer work at Dillard's. Cordoba says that she then tried to persuade Groo to reconsider, explaining that she worked very hard and would not have continued at Dillard's for three years if she did not like her job. According to Cordoba's own affidavit, her pleas were to no avail: "Ms. Groo did not want to hear my explanation. She just kept interrupting me and telling me that if I did not like my job I could not work at Dillard's. While refusing to listen to me, Ms. Groo handed me my termination papers."
B. Cordoba's Heart Condition
In January 2000 (while she was still working at Dillard's), Cordoba was diagnosed as suffering from supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), a congenital heart disorder. During an SVT episode, Cordoba's heart would palpitate rapidly, sometimes at a rate of more than 200 beats per minute. During her employment at Dillard's, these episodes were sporadic, sometimes occurring only every few months and sometimes occurring every few days. Sometimes the episodes lasted only a few minutes, while others lasted an hour or more. Generally, Cordoba was able to abate the episodes herself through breathing exercises and massage. After an episode, she usually felt dizzy and fatigued. Cordoba claims to suffer from an unusually severe form of SVT. Additionally, she claims that her medications have caused various other problems, including hair loss, leg pains, and hot flashes. Cordoba discussed her condition with several of her Dillard's coworkers on a number of occasions.
Cordoba first consulted a doctor about her condition in July 1998, but the doctor was unable to determine its precise cause. In August 1998, the doctor had Cordoba wear a heart monitor for twenty-four hours. Cordoba describes the monitor as "plainly visible," and at least one co-worker noticed it and recalled discussing it with her. For several months, the doctor prescribed a variety of medications for Cordoba, but these drugs had undesirable side effects and failed to control her condition fully. In May 1999, for example, Cordoba had to leave work and go to the hospital because of an episode. In January 2000, she again had to leave work as the result of an episode. It was on this occasion that an emergency-room doctor finally diagnosed her as having SVT. As a result, Cordoba's doctor prescribed a more potent combination of medications and referred her to a cardiologist. In March 2000, the cardiologist recommended that she undergo a surgical procedure called a catheter ablation, which would sever the defective
Stossel was aware of Cordoba's condition, as the two had discussed it on at least a few occasions. Specifically, Cordoba says that she told Stossel that she had been diagnosed with SVT, that she would be undergoing surgery to alleviate the condition, and that she would need a couple of weeks off to recuperate. Cordoba recalls Stossel being "curious" and wanting "to know exactly what would go on during the procedure" because Stossel had a similar condition and took similar medications. At least once, Stossel noticed Cordoba sitting down during work, and Cordoba explained that she was resting because she was experiencing palpitations. Also, because Stossel was her supervisor, Cordoba reported to Stossel when she had to leave work because of an attack. Finally, Cordoba says that Stossel was her supervisor in January 2000 when an episode forced her to leave work and go to the emergency room. Stossel recalls discussing Cordoba's condition and upcoming procedure with her, but says that she was not Cordoba's supervisor at the time of her January 2000 trip to the emergency room.
In March or April 2000, Cordoba asked Stossel for a reduction in hours and requested that she not have to work nights because her medication was causing her to feel fatigued. Stossel told Cordoba that she could not fulfill these requests immediately because doing so would require hiring a new employee. A month or so later, Dillard's honored Cordoba's requests.
As operations manager, Groo had very little contact with Cordoba and averred that she "had absolutely no inkling ... Cordoba had any health problems." Cordoba produced no evidence that directly contradicted Groo's testimony. In October 1998, Groo met with Cordoba about some unexcused absences and tardies. Cordoba recalls explaining to Groo that she "had been sick and . . . was going to a lot of doctors' appointments and getting a lot of testing done." She told Groo that the doctors were not sure what was wrong with her, as they had not yet been able to diagnose her condition. At her deposition, Groo did not specifically recall this meeting, but her records did indicate that it had taken place. Cordoba does not claim to have discussed her condition with Groo on any other occasions. Stossel and Groo both stated that they never discussed Cordoba's condition, and Groo was not aware that Cordoba had requested or received a reduction in hours. Finally, nothing in Cordoba's personnel file indicates that she been diagnosed with SVT or even had a heart condition.
A. Cordoba's ADA/FCRA Claims
In September 2001, Cordoba filed suit against Dillard's under the ADA and the FCRA, alleging that she was discriminated against because of her heart condition. In February 2003, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Dillard's. For the purposes of its order, the court assumed that Cordoba's heart condition was a "disability" under the ADA, recognizing that the issue presented "an exceedingly thorny question of fact for which the parties [had] compiled a voluminous and conflicting record of expert medical testimony and related documents." Cordoba, 2003 WL 21295143, at *8. However, the court found that Cordoba could not survive summary judgment because she had failed to create a material issue of fact as to whether Groo was aware of her alleged disability. And because Groo alone was responsible for Cordoba's termination, Cordoba could not establish that she had been fired "because of [her] disability." 42
In the course of its opinion, the district court "note[d] with concern that, quite apart from the question of what Defendant knew, there is serious reason to doubt even that Plaintiff considered herself to be disabled at any time during her tenure at Dillard's." Id. at *9. In fact, in her post-termination application for unemployment benefits, Cordoba indicated that she was not disabled. The court reasoned that it was "not reasonable to suppose that . . . Groo[ ] had concrete, actual knowledge of Plaintiff's disability when Plaintiff herself appeared ignorant about such status and did not consider herself to be disabled." Id.
The court also rejected Cordoba's argument that Dillard's could be held liable on the theory that it had "constructive knowledge" of her disability, the obvious flaw in this theory being that if Groo did not have actual knowledge of Cordoba's disability, she could not have fired her "because of" the disability. Id. at *9-11. The district court cogently explained why, as a matter of logic, Cordoba's "constructive knowledge" theory made no sense:
Id. at *10.
On appeal, we affirmed. We agreed with the district court that "an employer cannot be liable under the ADA for firing an employee when it indisputably had no knowledge of the disability," and that Cordoba had failed to show that Groo, the relevant corporate decisionmaker, was aware of her alleged disability. Cordoba, No. 03-11105, slip op. at 3 (quoting Morisky v. Broward Co., 80 F.3d 445, 448 (11th Cir.1996)) (alteration omitted). We also rejected Cordoba's constructive knowledge theory because "discrimination cannot be based on the constructive knowledge of the decisionmaker, or what the decisionmaker should have known." Id. at 6. Similarly, we rejected Cordoba's related contention that "Stossel's explicit knowledge of her illness created institutional liability for Dillard's." Id. at 6. We explained that, "[a]lthough Stossel was aware of Cordoba's disability, her knowledge cannot be imputed to Groo or Dillard's." Id. Finally, we noted that Cordoba challenged—as a matter of fact and as a matter of law—the district court's apparent reliance on the fact that she did not consider herself disabled. But because we concluded that the district court had reached the correct judgment, it was unnecessary for us to address this issue. Id. at 7-8.
B. Dillard's Motion for Attorney's Fees, Expert Fees, and Other Expenses
While Cordoba's appeal from the district court's order granting summary judgment was pending, Dillard's filed a motion in the district court seeking to recover attorney's
The district court's order first addressed the ADA's fee-shifting provision, 42 U.S.C. § 12205. The Supreme Court has held that in civil-rights cases the "plaintiff should not be assessed his opponent's attorney's fees unless a court finds that his claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so." Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 422, 98 S.Ct. 694, 701, 54 L.Ed.2d 648 (1978) (addressing Title VII's fee-shifting provision); Bruce v. City of Gainesville, 177 F.3d 949, 951-52 (11th Cir.1999) (holding that the Christiansburg standard applies under the ADA's fee-shifting provision). "[I]f a plaintiff is found to have brought or continued such a claim in bad faith, there will be an even stronger basis for charging him with the attorney's fees incurred by the defense." Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 422, 98 S.Ct. at 701. In this context, the district court "must focus on the question whether the case is so lacking in arguable merit as to be groundless or without foundation rather than whether the claim was ultimately successful." Sullivan v. Sch. Bd. of Pinellas County, 773 F.2d 1182, 1189 (quoting Jones v. Texas Tech Univ., 656 F.2d 1137, 1145 (5th Cir. Unit A Sept.1981)
At the outset of its analysis, the district court explained that it was unnecessary for it to determine whether Cordoba was disabled; in fact, the court stated that it had "only cursorily reviewed the medical evidence" the parties had submitted on that issue. Cordoba, 2003 WL 21499011, at *2 n. 6. In the district court's view, the evidence that Groo had any knowledge of Cordoba's disability was so plainly insufficient as to make Cordoba's claim frivolous even assuming that she was disabled. On this point, as in its order granting summary judgment, the court seized upon the fact that Cordoba herself—at least at the time she was fired—did not appear to think of herself as "disabled":
Id. at *3 (first two emphases added). In other words, the district court suggested that a plaintiff who does not consider herself disabled can never be discriminated against "because of" her disability. In any event, the court went on to find that Cordoba had produced no evidence that Groo was actually aware of her disability, but had instead relied solely on "raw and unsubstantiated conjecture." Id.
The district court then assessed Cordoba's constructive knowledge theory and concluded that this theory was more than just wrong; as the court put it, Cordoba's theory that Groo could have fired her "because of" a disability that Groo knew nothing about was the equivalent of suggesting that "one can be a bigot without being a bigot." Id. at *5. The court went on to criticize this argument as inconsistent with the "simplest principles of logic and commonsense," and even remarked that it was "baffled that [Cordoba] was willing to commit her spurious theory to paper in light of [Silvera v. Orange County Sch. Bd., 244 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir.2001)], which emphatically rejected such nonsense." Cordoba, 2003 WL 21499011, at *5 & n. 13.
Thus, it was clear to the district court that Cordoba had fallen far short of establishing a prima facie case. Given that Cordoba was seeking $900,000, it was also clear that Dillard's settlement offer of $10,000 was nominal and "clearly an effort . . . to save . . . the enormous legal expense of further litigation." Id. at *6. As such, the offer was not significant to the court's frivolity determination; in fact, in the district court's view, "that [Cordoba] blindly pushed past a generous, though still nominal, settlement offer strongly militate[d] in favor of attorney's fees." Id. (emphasis added). The court therefore concluded that an award of attorney's fees under the ADA's fee-shifting provision was appropriate.
The court also held that Dillard's was entitled to attorney's fees from Cordoba's
Id. at *7 (citations omitted). Dillard's agrees that this is an accurate statement of the law in this circuit, but Cordoba and her counsel argue that our precedent does, in fact, require a specific finding of actual, subjective bad faith. Our cases are perhaps somewhat unclear on this point: either they require subjective bad faith, which may be inferred from reckless conduct, or they merely require reckless conduct, which is considered "tantamount to bad faith."
The district court found that counsel had acted in "reckless disregard" of a "serious defect[ ]" in Cordoba's case: Groo's lack of knowledge of her alleged disability. Id. at *8. On this point, the court again noted that Cordoba did not consider herself disabled, and that even Cordoba's own deposition yielded no suggestion that Groo was aware of her heart condition. The district court was further frustrated by the fact that "[a]t some point . . ., counsel obviously grasped" this defect and "[y]et instead of retreating from the brink, either through a quick settlement or voluntary dismissal, counsel led [Cordoba] on a full charge over the edge, arguing preposterously that actual knowledge did not matter, only constructive knowledge." Id. In sum, the court concluded that because one theory of Cordoba's case had no basis in fact (actual knowledge) and the other had no basis in law (constructive knowledge), Cordoba's attorneys had "engaged in conduct tantamount to bad faith" in pursuing the case all the way to summary judgment. As such, it held that an award of attorney's fees and expenses was appropriate under both § 1927 and the court's inherent power. Id. at *9.
The district court held that Dillard's was entitled to (1) "all reasonable fees—legal, expert, paralegal, and otherwise—that [it] incurred during any discovery related to the question of [Cordoba's] alleged disability"
The magistrate judge found that Groo's lack of knowledge of Cordoba's alleged disability should have been apparent to Cordoba and her counsel after Groo's deposition was completed on October 18, 2002. Based on this determination, it recommended that the court award Dillard's $201,339.95 in attorney's fees and expenses. It further recommended that $10,000 in attorney's fees be assessed against Cordoba, with the remainder ($191,339.95) to be assessed against her attorney, Bernard Dempsey.
A. Standard of Review
The district court's decision to award fees and expenses under the ADA's fee-shifting provision is reviewed for abuse of discretion. E.g., Bonner v. Mobile Energy Servs. Co., 246 F.3d 1303, 1304 (11th Cir.2001) (Title VII case). This deferential standard of review encompasses even the threshold determination that a plaintiff's case was so "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless," Christiansburg Garment Co., 434 U.S. at 422, 98 S.Ct. at 701, as to justify an award of attorney's fees under the ADA. Cf. Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., 496 U.S. 384, 399-405, 110 S.Ct. 2447, 2457-61, 110 L.Ed.2d 359 (1990) (holding that a district court's legal conclusion that counsel violated Rule 11 is reviewed for abuse of discretion); Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 557-63, 108 S.Ct. 2541, 2546-49, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988) (holding that a district court's legal conclusion that the Government's position was not "substantially justified" under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), is reviewed for abuse of discretion). However, "when determining whether a claim was or became frivolous, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-prevailing plaintiff." Johnson v. Florida, 348 F.3d 1334, 1354 (11th Cir.2003) (citing EEOC v. Pet, Inc., 719 F.2d 383, 384 (11th Cir.1983)). The abuse-of-discretion standard also applies to the extent that the district court's order relies on 28 U.S.C. § 1927 or the court's inherent power. E.g., Schwartz v. Millon Air, Inc., 341 F.3d 1220, 1225 (11th Cir.
B. The ADA Fee-Shifting Provision
We first consider whether Cordoba's claims were so objectively "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless" as to justify a fee award under the ADA's fee-shifting provision. Christiansburg Garment Co., 434 U.S. at 422, 98 S.Ct. at 701. We address this question first because if the award cannot be upheld on this basis, then it also cannot be upheld under § 1927 or as an exercise of the court's inherent power, which both require, in addition to objective frivolity, a finding that counsel engaged in conduct that was at least "tantamount to bad faith," see supra note 6 and accompanying text. As we read it, Cordoba's memorandum of law in opposition to summary judgment (summary-judgment memo) presented three distinct theories as to why there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the defendant's knowledge of her disability. First, she argued that Groo had actual knowledge. Second, she argued that Stossel had actual knowledge and was, to at least some extent, involved in the termination decision. Third, she advanced a constructive-knowledge theory. We address each theory in turn.
1. Groo's Actual Knowledge
First, we agree with the district court that Cordoba fell far short of creating a genuine issue as to whether Groo was aware of her disability. Citing only her own affidavit and deposition, Cordoba's summary-judgment memo argued that "before Ms. Groo terminated her, [she] informed Ms. Groo that she was scheduled to have heart surgery." But even Cordoba's affidavit (which was filed with her summary judgment-memo) states that Groo told Cordoba that she "could not work at Dillard's" before Cordoba informed her that she "needed [her] job so that [she] could have health insurance for [her] heart surgery." Cordoba's memo may have meant only that she told Groo about the surgery before she was officially handed her termination papers—which Dillard's also disputes—but Groo had already made the decision to fire Cordoba at that point, and that decision clearly was not made "because of" Cordoba's disability. Cordoba's only other support for this theory was her own recollection of a meeting with Groo that took place more than a year before she was fired. At this meeting, Groo apparently inquired about some unexcused absences and tardies, and Cordoba explained only that she had missed some work because of doctors' appointments, and that the doctors had been unable to determine why she was not feeling well. Given that Cordoba herself told Groo that her own doctors could not diagnose her condition, this meeting could not have put Groo on notice that Cordoba was disabled.
Thus, as this court previously held, "[n]one of this evidence allows the inference that Groo actually knew Cordoba was disabled before she decided to fire her, much less that Groo fired Cordoba because of her disability." Cordoba, No. 03-11105, slip op. at 4. The relevant question now, however, is whether that evidence was so obviously deficient that Cordoba and her counsel should be forced to pay Dillard's attorney's fees and expenses.
In this case, while we agree with the district court that Cordoba's argument was pure conjecture, the context of her dismissal at least makes her speculation somewhat less unreasonable than was the case in Hedberg. First, Cordoba had told Groo that she had been "going to the doctor a lot"—although this was more than a year before she was fired, and she also stated that the doctors "weren't sure what was wrong". Second, whereas in Hedberg the plaintiff's supervisor became aware of the plaintiff's condition only a month before he was fired, Stossel had been generally aware of Cordoba's condition for quite some time. Third, several other Dillard's employees were generally aware of Cordoba's condition as well. Thus, whereas in Hedberg the plaintiff sought to keep his condition private, Cordoba appears to have frequently discussed her condition with her coworkers.
Under these circumstances, although Cordoba could ultimately do no more than speculate that Groo was aware of her condition, this speculation was not so unreasonable that it can be termed frivolous. To be sure, Cordoba's claims were weak, and it is easy at this point to recognize that the court and all parties involved would have been better off had they never been pursued. But in awarding attorney's fees against ADA plaintiffs, we must take care not to "undercut the efforts of Congress to promote the vigorous enforcement" of the Act. Christiansburg, 434 U.S. at 422, 98 S.Ct. at 701. To this end, it is important that courts not
Id. at 421-22, 98 S.Ct. at 700-01. Because Cordoba's claims, though weak, were not entirely "without foundation," id. at 422, 98 S.Ct. at 700, the district court's award of fees and expenses constituted an abuse of discretion.
2. Stossel's Actual Knowledge
In our prior opinion affirming the district court's order granting summary judgment, we stated that "[a]lthough Stossel was aware of Cordoba's disability, her knowledge [could not] be imputed to Groo or Dillard's." Cordoba, No. 03-11105, slip op. at 6. Because the district court expressly avoided—and we did not decide — the question whether Cordoba was "disabled" under the ADA, it is clear that we meant, at most, that Stossel was aware of the general nature of Cordoba's heart condition (i.e., her alleged disability).
But the question we address now is whether Cordoba's theory can meet the substantially lesser standard of "not frivolous." Although Cordoba was never able to come up with any evidence that Stossel was involved in the termination decision—and Dillard's presented credible evidence to the contrary—we do not think that it was entirely unreasonable for Cordoba to hope that the court would permit her case to go to a jury on this theory. After all, only Stossel, Groo, and Cordoba were present when Cordoba was fired. Moreover, given that Sebben did not intend to report her confrontation with Cordoba to Groo, Stossel's decision to do so was actually something of a "but for" cause of Cordoba's termination.
These circumstances at least make Cordoba's theory less unreasonable than the one the Seventh Circuit considered in Hedberg, supra. There, the plaintiff conceded that his supervisor had completed his written evaluations of the plaintiff before he became aware of the plaintiff's illness, and there was no indication that the supervisor was present either when the defendant's department heads decided to fire the plaintiff, or when the plaintiff was actually fired. See Hedberg, 47 F.3d at 930-32.
3. Constructive Knowledge
Finally, Cordoba argued that Dillard's had "constructive knowledge" of her alleged disability because employees other than Groo (1) were aware of her condition and scheduled surgery, (2) had observed her experiencing heart palpitations, (3) knew that she had left work and gone to the emergency room once because of heart palpitations, and (4) had accommodated her request for a reduction in hours. The district court rightly rejected this theory. The ADA prohibits discrimination "against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a) (emphasis added). As a matter of logic, Groo could not have fired Cordoba "because of" a disability that she knew nothing about. This is why we have said that "[d]iscrimination is about actual knowledge, and real intent, not constructive knowledge and assumed intent." Silvera v. Orange County Sch. Bd., 244 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir.2001); see also Brungart v. BellSouth Telecomm., Inc., 231 F.3d 791, 800 (11th Cir.2000) ("The BellSouth corporation itself did not actually make the decision to take the adverse employment action; Nelson made that decision, albeit on the corporation's behalf. Because Nelson did not know of the protected conduct, he could not have taken that action on the corporation's behalf because of the protected conduct. This is another way of saying that the fact the employer is a corporation does not relieve a plaintiff of the burden of showing a causal connection between the protected conduct and the decision to take the adverse employment action."). Stated differently, even if we had gone along with Cordoba's theory and "imputed" these employees' knowledge to Dillard's the corporate entity, Cordoba's claim still would have failed because Dillard's the corporate entity did not make the decision to fire her. Rather, Groo fired Cordoba, and since Groo was unaware of Cordoba's alleged disability, she obviously did not fire her "because of" the alleged disability.
In support of her constructive knowledge theory, Cordoba's summary judgment memo cited two cases from this circuit, Breda v. Wolf Camera & Video, 222 F.3d 886 (11th Cir.2000), and Hilburn v. Murata Elecs. of N. Am., Inc., 181 F.3d 1220 (11th Cir.1999), and one Ninth Circuit decision, Kimbro v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 889 F.2d 869 (9th Cir.1989). The reason for Cordoba's citation to Breda eludes us. That case stands for the unexceptional proposition that when an employer designates a specific person to receive complaints of sexual harassment, the employer is deemed to have actual notice of such complaints when they are made to the designated person. See Breda, 222 F.3d at 889-90. There is absolutely nothing in Breda to suggest that constructive knowledge is a substitute for actual knowledge in a discriminatory-discharge action under the ADA. At the summary-judgment stage, Kimbro and Hilburn did not aid Cordoba's constructive-knowledge theory either, but they do require somewhat more discussion for the purposes of the issue we now address.
In Kimbro, the plaintiff (Kimbro) sued his former employer (ARCO) under the Washington anti-discrimination statute for failing to reasonably accommodate his migraine condition. Although Kimbro was ultimately fired as a result of absenteeism (which was caused primarily by his migraine headaches), his lawsuit alleged a failure to make reasonable accommodations, rather than discriminatory discharge. ARCO argued that it could not be
Kimbro plainly is not on point here, and the district court rightly criticized Cordoba's reliance on it. See Cordoba, 2003 WL 21295143, at *10-11. First, that case was about reasonable accommodations, not discriminatory discharge. Second and most important, although ARCO management lacked actual knowledge of Kimbro's disability, Kimbro's supervisor was aware of his condition and was responsible, under ARCO's own policy, for communicating that information to management. Thus, ARCO was essentially arguing that it could avoid liability because its own internal policies had broken down. In this sense, Kimbro is analogous to Breda: it holds, at most, that when an employer designates a supervisor as an employee's contact point for personnel matters such as reasonable accommodations, the employer cannot later defend a failure to make reasonable accommodations on the ground that the supervisor failed to relate the employee's disability to relevant decision-makers within the company. This principle plainly has no applicability to a case such as this one where an employee alleges that the employer's stated reason for firing her is a pretext for disability discrimination. A "pretext" is "a purpose or motive alleged ... in order to cloak [one's] real intention." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1797 (1993). It simply defies logic to argue that Groo's "real intention" was to fire Cordoba "because of" a disability that Groo knew nothing about.
In Hilburn, we affirmed the district court's decision granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the plaintiff's ADA discriminatory-discharge claim because the plaintiff failed to establish that she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA. Hilburn, 181 F.3d at 1231. At the outset of our analysis, in the context of discussing the elements of a prima facie case, we stated, "[The plaintiff] must establish that [the defendant-employer] had actual or constructive knowledge of the disability." Id. at 1226 (emphasis added). Our opinion includes no further discussion of this aspect of the plaintiff's case. We must concede, however, that this stray comment lends some support to Cordoba's constructive knowledge theory—a theory that otherwise, as the district court correctly concluded, "evinces no fidelity to the simplest principles of logic and commonsense." Cordoba, 2003 WL 21499011, at *5. We must also acknowledge that a similar statement can be found in another Eleventh Circuit opinion, albeit an opinion that also did not address this aspect of the plaintiff's case. See Gordon v. E.L. Hamm & Assocs., 100 F.3d 907, 910 (11th Cir.1996) (stating that "a plaintiff must demonstrate that the employer had either actual or constructive knowledge of the disability or considered the employee to be disabled"). Finally, we must point out that even in the very precedent that the district court thought to be "directly relevant and devastating to Plaintiff's case," Cordoba, 2003 WL 21499011, at *9, we
In granting summary judgment in favor of Dillard's, the district court correctly disregarded these references to "constructive knowledge" as dicta. Once the issue is framed clearly, it is evident that an employee cannot be fired "because of" a disability unless the decisionmaker has actual knowledge of the disability. At this point, however, the issue is no longer whether Cordoba's constructive knowledge theory is legally viable (it is not); rather the issue is whether — in light of our opinions in Morisky, Hilburn, and Gordon—it was frivolous and without any foundation at the summary-judgment stage of the case.
As to this question, we find it difficult to condemn Cordoba's theory as frivolous, built as it was from language in our own opinions. The district court relied heavily on our opinion in Morisky, concluding that it was "directly relevant and devastating" to Cordoba's position.
To be clear, Cordoba's theory lacked support in logic and commonsense, and we have never specifically endorsed it. Its fundamental flaw lies in the fact that a decision-maker who lacks actual knowledge of an employee's disability cannot fire the employee "because of" that disability. Moreover, the cases cited by the district court all but completely undermine it as a viable argument in this context.
4. Cordoba's ADA Claim Was Not Frivolous
In sum, the defendant itself described Cordoba as a "good," "competent," or, at the very least, "average" employee. Prior to her confrontation with Sebben, Cordoba had received no serious reprimands. Sebben herself said that she was "surprised" to learn that Cordoba was fired as a result of the incident. The district court assumed for the purposes of summary judgment that Cordoba was disabled, recognizing that this issue presented an "exceedingly thorny question of fact." And when the court ruled on Dillard's motion for attorney's fees and expenses, the district court stated that it had "only cursorily reviewed the medical evidence" relevant to this issue. Given that we must "view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-prevailing plaintiff," Johnson, 348 F.3d at 1354, we also assume that Cordoba was disabled for the purposes of deciding this appeal. This case thus involves a competent employee, who we assume to be disabled within the meaning of the ADA, who was fired as a result of her first significant violation of her employer's work rules. It is in this light that we must assess the frivolity of Cordoba's (1) allegation that Groo was aware of her disability, (2) allegation that Stossel was involved in Groo's decision, and (3) constructive knowledge theory.
As a postscript, we note that Dillard's might have avoided much of the expense of defending Cordoba's claims had it conducted this litigation differently. By our calculations, it appears that more than $75,000 of the fees and expenses awarded were incurred before Groo's deposition was completed. Moreover, more than $50,000 in fees were related directly to discovery regarding Cordoba's alleged disability, another $23,000 was expended procuring expert testimony regarding her condition, and the bulk of Dillard's memorandum of law in support of its motion for summary judgment focused on the question whether Cordoba's heart condition was a disability under the ADA. All this work ultimately proved unnecessary. At the summary-judgment stage, the district court did not consider the "voluminous and conflicting record of expert medical testimony and related documents" the parties had compiled because it simply assumed the Cordoba was disabled and focused instead on Groo's lack of knowledge. Cordoba, 2003 WL 21295143, at *8. And when it ruled on Dillard's motion for fees and expenses, the court stated that it had still "only cursorily reviewed the medical evidence concerning whether [Cordoba] was disabled." Cordoba, 2003 WL 21499011, at *2 n. 6.
Through its employees, Dillard's was aware of all facts regarding Groo's knowledge from the outset of this litigation. The primary basis for the district court's order granting summary judgment was (1) Groo's testimony that, prior to
We have significant doubts as to whether Dillard's is correct in its belief that the district court would have declined to rule promptly on such a motion for summary judgment—particularly if Dillard's had made clear to the court that the issue was straightforward, that Groo's lack of knowledge was dispositive, and that a prompt ruling on the motion would avoid medical discovery that would be time-consuming and expensive for both parties. While it is true that "district courts enjoy broad discretion in deciding how best to manage the cases before them," Chudasama v. Mazda Motor Corp., 123 F.3d 1353, 1366 (11th Cir.1997), there is no reason to assume that a district judge will stubbornly refuse to rule on a motion for summary judgment at an early stage of the litigation if the moving party clearly apprises the court that a prompt decision will likely avoid significant unnecessary discovery. In fact, we expect that district judges will be open to such motions. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2555, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) ("Summary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed `to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.'" (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 1)).
If Dillard's is, in fact, correct that it absolutely could not have gotten heard on
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court requiring Cordoba to pay Dillard's $10,000 in attorney's fees and expenses, and requiring Dempsey to pay Dillard's $191,339.95 in attorney's fees and expenses is
Id. at 1262.
Although we agree with the district court that Silvera's reasoning undercuts Cordoba's constructive-knowledge theory, we do not agree that it so clearly refuted her theory as to make her argument frivolous and without foundation. As with Morisky, Silvera is not on all fours with the instant case. It did not consider whether a supervisor's knowledge of an employee's protected status should be imputed to the employer. Thus, while Silvera's reasoning was ultimately extended to this case, that it would be was not so clear ex ante to make Cordoba's argument frivolous. Given that we had alluded to the possibility of a claim based on constructive knowledge in Hilburn, Gordon, and Morisky, there was some basis for her theory.