By Honore Hishamunda and Alex S. Drummond

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers face a tough challenge in trying to balance their obligations under the ADA with efforts to enforce workplace rules. A recent decision out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, however, highlighted how employers can get that balance right.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), among other things, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees qualified to perform the essential functions of their jobs and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the ADA. But what if, in the midst of attempting to comply with these obligations, employers have to enforce workplace rules against someone requesting a reasonable accommodation? A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision – McDonald v. UAW-GM Center for Human Resources – highlighted how, with care, employers can balance these seemingly competing goals.

The plaintiff in the case was a receptionist, a union member, and suffered from a genetic disorder which, with the employer’s permission, she took time off from work to treat. During plaintiff’s time with the employer, the operative CBA required employees to take lunch breaks no earlier than 11:00 a.m., and to, once a year, select either a half-hour lunchbreak with separate additional 15-minute breaks or an hour long lunch break. Plaintiff, despite these policies and despite choosing a half hour break, began leaving for the gym at 10:30 a.m. and tacking on her 15-minute breaks to essentially take an hour long break. In addition, plaintiff was accused of sexually harassing another co-worker.

In the midst of the employer’s sexual harassment investigation, plaintiff asked if she could either switch to an hour long break or tack on breaks in order to continue to work out as it helped with the pain from her previous surgeries. Her supervisor rejected this request citing the CBA’s rules, and offered plaintiff the option of arriving early in the mornings to work out. In addition plaintiff’s supervisor warned plaintiff that continued violation of the early or extend lunch break policy could result in disciplinary action.

Plaintiff rejected her supervisor’s compromise, and contacted the company’s personnel manager regarding her requests, this time providing a doctor’s note stating that plaintiff needed to exercise daily for 30 to 60 minutes. The personnel manager stated that the request would need approval from other members of management. However, while plaintiff’s request was being processed and on the same day she received an update regarding the same, plaintiff left early to go to the gym without authorization. Plaintiff was caught and eventually suspended for violating workplace rules. Plaintiff never returned to work and instead took personal leave before submitting her voluntary resignation. The time between her initial accommodation request and her resignation was less than 2 months.

Plaintiff sued claiming a failure to accommodate. Further, plaintiff alleged that her employer suspended her in retaliation for requesting a reasonable accommodation, or, alternatively, that she was constructively discharged. The Sixth Circuit, affirming the District Court, granted employer’s motion for summary judgment on each of plaintiff’s claims.

The Sixth Circuit held that the employer met its obligations to reasonably accommodate plaintiff. Specifically, the court found that the employer listened to plaintiff’s initial request for an accommodation, provided alternatives, again listened to plaintiff’s second request for an accommodation, and was unable to process the request because plaintiff resigned. In doing so, the court noted that, in the ADA context, (i) an employer’s minimal delay due to internal processing or events outside of its control does not an ADA violation; (ii) an employer is not required to provide a specific accommodation if it identify other reasonable accommodations; and (iii) when an employee quits before their accommodation request is resolved, the employee, and not the employer, is typically at fault for the interactive process breaking down.

In addition, the Sixth Circuit held that the employer did not retaliate against plaintiff for asserting her ADA rights. Specifically, the court found that plaintiff was not retaliated against because she was suspended for violating workplace rules, not for requesting reasonable accommodations. In doing so, the court noted that an employee must show that their protected activity was the “but-for” cause of any adverse action. Further, the court found that plaintiff, and other employees, cannot make such a showing where “an intervening legitimate reason to take an adverse employment action [like insubordination] dispels an inference of retaliation based on temporal proximity.”

The Sixth Circuit also held that the employer did not constructively discharge plaintiff. Specifically, the court found that plaintiff’s complained of treatment – the employer investigating her for alleged sexual harassment, declining her preferred accommodation, and suspending her for insubordination – did not support her constructive discharge claim. In doing so, the court noted that a constructive discharge claim “is hard to prove” and requires a showing that “working conditions were objectively intolerable and that [the] employer deliberately created those conditions in hopes that they would force [the employee] to quit.” Further, the court noted that, in the instant case, plaintiff’s suspension was related to her “deliberate insubordination” and her investigation was “management simply… responding to a workplace complaint” such that “no reasonable jury could find that [employer] hoped [plaintiff] would quit because of these preferred reasons.”

This decision highlights that, even when wrestling with their obligations under the ADA context, employers may and should enforce workplace rules.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By James L. Curtis, Erin Dougherty Foley, Adam R. YoungMegan P. Toth, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers must evaluate their safety protections for pregnant women and engage in the interactive process with employees to find reasonable accommodations.

Reproductive Health Hazards in the Workplace

Pregnant women work in hazardous jobs across the United States and in every sector of the economy.  While employers have a general duty to protect their employees from a condition known to cause harm, pregnant women may face unique risks and may be more susceptible to a range of serious workplace hazards.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notes that “exposure to reproductive hazards in the workplace is an increasing health concern.”  The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has information resources on pregnancy and reproductive health hazards.  Ionizing radiation and lead, for instance, are known hazards to pregnant women and reproductive health.  A fetus might be more vulnerable to certain chemicals, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy when it is rapidly growing and the baby’s organs are developing.  Further, changes in a pregnant employee’s immune system, lung capacity, and even ligaments can increase their risk of injury or illness due to certain workplace hazards.  Employers must protect their employees (including more susceptible pregnant employees) and prevent exposures to these known hazards.

Involuntary Reassignments of Pregnant Women

This does not mean that employers should be reactive and involuntarily remove pregnant women from positions or duties in which they may be exposed to hazards, either to themselves or their developing baby, without the employee’s request and/or agreement. There are both federal and state laws that protect pregnant employees in the workplace, including Title VII to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on sex and the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination against employees “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”  Moreover, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), as well as state pregnancy accommodation laws, prohibit discrimination based on qualifying pregnancy related disabilities, and, under certain circumstances, prohibit employers from requiring employees to take accommodations to which they do not agree (i.e., a forced reassignment or relinquishment in job duties).

To the extent that an employer changes a job assignment or removes a woman from a desirable position because she is pregnant or may become pregnant, without a specific accommodation request, and in some cases, agreement from the employee, the employer could face a claim of gender and/or pregnancy discrimination.

Where there is no medically-documented basis (e.g. chemical or radiation hazard) that exposure might injure a fetus, a pregnant or potentially pregnant employee’s perceived susceptibility to a hazard probably would not be a legitimate reason to involuntarily demote, take away opportunities, or discharge a female employee. This, however, does not mean that employers should not offer pregnant workers the opportunity to avoid exposure that may be more harmful to them based on their pregnancy or that it should not be consider as an accommodation.  It simply means job assignment and removal of desirable duty should not be assumed or forced upon a worker because she is pregnant.

However, some potential chemical and radiation exposures may force an employer to make involuntary reassignments.  For example, low levels of lead or radiation may be safe for most employees, but may not be safe for women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.  Employers should inform employees of these hazards and their potential effects on reproductive health and fetal health, and request that the employee notify the employer if the employee is pregnant or is potentially pregnant.  Where there is a potential chemical or radiation hazard that might injure a fetus, an employer may need to propose a reassignment and overrule an employee if she rejects the accommodation. Specific regulations address some of these hazards with regard to pregnant women and mandate actions by the employer.  See https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/reproductivehazards/standards.html; and https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/radiationionizing/pregnantworkers.html.

Changes to Protective Equipment

Because of physical changes to the body during pregnancy which may necessitate new safety protections, employers must consider some workplace safety equipment changes to protect and accommodate pregnant employees.  Personal Protective Equipment, such as a harness for a personal fall arrest system, may no longer fit a pregnant employee or may have the potential to cause unnecessary harm to a worker or their developing baby.  Similarly, gloves, sleeves, helmets, or specialized boots may need to be replaced by the employer, with the assistance of the employee to ensure a proper fit.

Respirators present a trickier question.  If an employee passed a medical evaluation and fit test before becoming pregnant, she may present different medical issues with using a respirator and the respirator may no longer fit properly.  Employers should contact their medical professional to help coordinate any respirator use by pregnant employees.

Disclosure and Voluntary Accommodations

NIOSH recommends that a pregnant employee discuss possible job hazards with the employer and their doctor as soon as possible after learning about the pregnancy.  NIOSH suggests that many pregnant women adjust their job duties temporarily, or take extra steps to protect themselves.

The ADA, as well as various state laws, also requires employers provide accommodations to employees with qualifying pregnancy-related disabilities, upon becoming aware that employees are in need of such an accommodation.  Although employees should be expected to notify their employers of their need for a pregnancy-related accommodation, there are no “magic words” that trigger an employer’s obligation under the ADA. Therefore,  managers should be well trained to identify and properly inquire when a pregnancy-related accommodation may be needed, and how to appropriately engage in the interactive process, both under the ADA and any applicable state laws.

For example, if employers are concerned about exposures to pregnant employees, and the employee has reported that she is pregnant, the employer may ask the employee whether she needs any accommodations.  If the employee is interested in an accommodation, the employer should engage in the interactive process, including a robust dialogue with the employee to determine what reasonable accommodations may be agreeable.  If the employee can no longer perform the essential functions of their position, and there are no other reasonable accommodations available, reassignment to an open position, or if no open positions, a leave of absence, may be the only potential reasonable accommodations possible. However, it is important to be aware, an employee may not be forced to take a different position or a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation, if there are other reasonable accommodations available.

More Information About Pregnancy In the Workplace

Pregnancy in the workplace presents a range of employment issues that confound human resources managers, in-house counsels, and safety managers.

Seyfarth Shaw has frequently blogged on other pregnancy and employment related issues and topics, like Governor Baker Signs Into Law the Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, Rescind that Job Offer After Her Notice of Pregnancy? Maybe Not, SCOTUS Rules on Pregnancy Accommodation Case, “A Telecommute Dispute” – What is a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA?, Supreme Court Debates Reach of Pregnancy Law, New Guidance From The EEOC Requires Employers To Provide Reasonable Accommodations Under The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, New York City and Philadelphia Pass New Pregnancy Accommodation Laws, Not Without Warning: The EEOC Continues To File Barrages Of Pregnancy Discrimination Lawsuits, Pregnancy Discrimination Update: Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., and Retail Detail: Pregnancy Discrimination, Accommodations and Issues For Retailers.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA), Absence Management and Accommodations, or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Jade M. Gilstrap and Alex S. Drummond

Seyfarth Synopsis: The D.C. Circuit recently revived a single-leg amputee’s claim that his former employer failed to accommodate his disability by refusing his request for a classroom aide. In reversing the lower court’s decision in part, the two-member panel found triable issues of fact existed regarding whether forcing the plaintiff to work with pain, when that pain could have been alleviated by his requested accommodation, violated The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Case Background

In Hill v. Associates for Renewal in Education, Inc., No. 15-7064 (D.C. Cir. 2018), the plaintiff, who wore a leg prosthesis, worked as a teacher and program aide for Associates for Renewal in Education, Inc. (“ARE”). Throughout his employment, Hill worked in a three-story building with no elevator and was responsible for instructing participants in the classroom, on field trips, and during outside activities; overall classroom management; counseling participants on academic and behavioral challenges; and providing administrative and/or clerical support to administrative personnel.

A year and a half before his termination, Hill injured his amputated leg and damaged his prosthesis while walking across ARE’s playground, which resulted in him experiencing severe pain and bruising after standing for long periods of time. As an accommodation, he requested and was assigned a classroom aide and was permitted to hold his classes on the second floor of the building.

A couple of months later, ARE reassigned Hill to a classroom on the third floor. Unlike the other teachers in his program, Hill was not assigned a classroom aide, despite having the largest classroom size among his peers. According to Hill, he contested the reassignment and requested to be moved back to a lower floor and with a teacher aide, but to no avail. Around the same time, Hill began to have disciplinary issues at work and was subsequently terminated.

Hill subsequently filed a pro se complaint against ARE alleging, inter alia, claims for disability discrimination and hostile work environment based on the non-profit’s denial of his requests for a classroom aide and to be reassigned to a classroom on a lower floor. The D.C. District Court denied summary judgment on Hill’s claim for failure to accommodate based on ARE’s refusal to assign him to a lower floor, but granted summary judgment on his claims for hostile work environment and failure to accommodate his request to be assigned a classroom aide. Specifically, with respect to his request for a classroom aide, the district court concluded that Hill “had not adduced any evidence to show that an [a]ide would have been an effective means of addressing the limitations imposed by his amputated leg,” despite Hill’s insistence that the aide was necessary because his disability substantially limited his ability the perform the essential functions of his job “without pain and bruises,” which required walking long distances, standing for long periods of time, and climbing consecutive flights of stairs.

Hill appealed. The Circuit court affirmed in part and denied in part.

The D.C. Circuit Court’s Reasoning

The D.C. Circuit Court concluded that the district court was right to grant summary judgment on Hill’s hostile work environment claim (agreeing that even if ARE had denied Hill a classroom aide and failed to assign him to a lower floor, such behavior did not amount to the type of “extreme” conditions sufficient to constitute a hostile work environment), but wrong to say that Hill had not proffered sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that ARE violated the ADA when it refused his request for a classroom aide.

To prevail on a failure-to-accommodate claim brought under the ADA, a plaintiff is required to show that: 1) he suffered a qualifying disability, 2) his employer knew about the disability, 3) he could perform the essential functions of his job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, and 4) his employer refused to make the accommodation. An accommodation is only reasonable under the ADA if it “relate[s] to the disability that creates the employment barrier and, in fact, “address[es] that barrier.”

The Court found that Hill—who alleged he experienced “a hazard of pain and bruising” while standing for long periods of time, pain that resulted from him having to supervise his class without assistance from a classroom aide— had satisfied his burden of sufficiently connecting his disability with his request for a classroom aide and the assistance the aide could provide him in performing the essential functions of his job. The Court, however, found unpersuasive ARE’s argument that Hill did not need the accommodation of a classroom aide because he could perform the essential functions of his job without accommodation, albeit with a lot of pain, and, instead, held that “[a] reasonable jury could conclude that forcing Hill to work with pain when that pain could be alleviated by his requested accommodation violates the ADA” and that “if ARE [had] provided Hill a classroom aide as it did for his colleagues, that aide could help Hill supervise students in the classroom and during outdoor activities, reducing his need for prolonged standing and mitigating the alleged ‘hazard of pain and bruising.’”

While the Court expressed no opinion about whether the classroom aide would have, in fact, constituted a reasonable accommodation for Hill’s disability—leaving that for the jury to decide—it reminded employers and employees, alike, that while “the ADA does not make employers responsible for alleviating any and all challenges presented by an employee’s disability… an employer may be required to accommodate an employee’s disability by ‘reallocating or redistributing nonessential, marginal job functions,’ or by providing an aide to enable the employee to perform an essential function without replacing the employee in performing that function.”

Takeaways for Employers

The ADA continues to be a significant area of liability for employers, as disability-related issues continue permeating today’s workplace. The D.C. Circuit’s decision stands as a reminder to employers to carefully assess the reasonableness of an employee’s request for an accommodation and to strongly consider such requests in the absence of undue hardship. Employers should take care to remember that the “reasonableness” of any request for an accommodation will necessarily depend on the specific circumstances which must be evaluated on a case by case basis. The mere fact that a disabled employee can perform the essential functions of his or her job, albeit with pain or discomfort, may not, by itself, be sufficient to deny that employee a reasonable accommodation.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

 

By Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Is it a service animal or an emotional support animal?  Do I have to allow both?  How to tell one from the other, and the rules that apply.

We get a lot of questions about service and emotional support animals.  It’s obvious that there is a lot of confusion out there.  Here is how to tell one from the other, and the rules that apply to both.

Public Accommodations.  Under Title III of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and virtually all state laws, a service animal is an animal that has been trained to perform work or tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.  Emotional support animals—also called therapy or comfort animals—have not been trained to perform work or tasks.  Instead, they provide a benefit just by being present.  Public accommodations (e.g. restaurants, theatres, stores, health care facilities), are allowed to ask only two questions to determine if an animal is a service animal:  (1) Do you need the animal because of a disability? and (2) What work or tasks has this animal been trained to perform?  The second question is the key:  If the person is unable to identify the work or tasks that the animal has been trained to perform, then the animal is not a service animal.

Under the ADA, only a dog or miniature horse (no, we are not joking) can serve as service animals.  The ADA requires public accommodations to allow service animals to accompany their owners anywhere the owners can go, although the Department of Justice made clear a few years ago that they can be prohibited from swimming pools (in the water) as well as shopping carts.  The ADA provides no protection for emotional support animals in public accommodations.  The Department of Justice has a very helpful FAQ about service animals, and the Washington Post recently published a story that is also useful.

When developing policies, public accommodations must comply with both federal and state law, and some states provide greater protections.  For example, in some states, any type of animal (not limited to dogs and miniature horses) can be a service animal provided it has been trained to perform work or tasks.  Some states may provide protection for emotional support animals as well.  Virtually all states protect service animals in training, which are not addressed by the ADA.  Thus, public accommodations must tailor their policies to account for state requirements, or adopt a policy that will comport with the broadest of all state laws nationwide.

Housing.  The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) applies to residential facilities and provides protection for emotional support animals in addition to service animals.  Thus, property managers, condo associations, co-op boards, and homeowners associations need to keep this in mind when dealing with requests from homeowners and tenants relating to these types of animals.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent guidance on this topic is here.

Airplanes.  The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), not the ADA, governs accommodations for people with disabilities on airplanes.  The Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for enforcing the ACAA rules.  Historically, the rules have required accommodations for emotional support animals, but recent abuses of the rules by passengers seeking to bring all manner of animals such as peacocks and pigs onto planes has caused the DOT to revisit this issue in a pending rulemaking.

Compliance Strategy.  All businesses should have a written policy concerning service and emotional support animals that takes into account federal law, state law, the nature of the business, and the ability of employees to make decisions about whether an animal should be allowed onto the premises.  Having a written policy and training employees on the policy is key to ensuring that they know how to respond when one of these animals shows up on the premises.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the ADA Title III Team.

By Oluwafunmito (“Funto”) P. Seton and Linda Schoonmaker

Seyfarth Synopsis: In recent years, a body of law has developed surrounding pattern or practice lawsuits brought by the EEOC. This has helped to clarify, for example, when the 300-day filing cutoff applies, or whether the claimant is eligible for damages as opposed to just equitable relief. In a recent decision out of the Western District of Oklahoma, yet another court has expanded the breadth of knowledge surrounding EEOC pattern or practice lawsuits, explaining that the continuing violation exception can toll Section 706’s timely filing requirement.

Case Background

Horizontal Well Drillers (“HWD”), is an oil and gas drilling company. Between January 1, 2012, through June 30, 2014, job applicants to HWD were required to submit information on age, family and personal health history, doctors’ care status, prescription drug use, and other health inquiries. HWD also sought information regarding applicants’ workers’ compensation histories, preferring to hire people with no history of workers’ compensation injuries or claims.

Wilbert Glover (Plaintiff-Intervenor), applied for a drilling position with HWD on January 11, 2013. He passed the rigorous health and background screenings and the HWD doctor who conducted his new hire medical exam concluded that he was medically qualified to perform the job. HWD, however, terminated Mr. Glover’s employment shortly after completing his new hire medical exam because of his high blood pressure.

Mr. Glover filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on or around April 1, 2013, alleging that his termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”). The EEOC requested relevant records from HWD and expanded the scope of the investigation to include all applicants hired and not hired from January 1, 2012 through June 30, 2014. (Notably, June 30, 2014 was also when HWD removed the “Applicant and Family Health, Worker’s Compensation, and Disability Pension history questions” from its application.) After its investigation, the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that HWD violated the ADA, GINA, Title VII, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”).

Consequently, the EEOC (as Plaintiff) filed a class action lawsuit against HWD alleging various claims, including (i) pattern or practice of discriminatory failure to hire in violation of the ADEA; (ii) pattern or practice of discriminatory failure to hire in violation of the ADA; (iii) unlawful disability inquiry in conducting workers’ compensation background checks, in violation of the ADA; and (iv) unlawful post-hire medical exam, in violation of the ADA. Thereafter, Glover intervened as a party, alleging claims under the ADA and GINA.

HWD filed a motion to dismiss on various grounds. Our discussion focuses on HWD’s argument that the 300-day limitations period should bar recovery for putative class members who allege ADA failures to hire before June 5, 2012 and from putative class members who allege ADEA failures to hire before February 7, 2014.

A primer on HWD’s limitations argument

Title VII — 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1) (“Section 706”) (and which the ADA and ADEA follow on this point) — states that a charge of discrimination shall be filed within 300 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice has occurred.

Because Mr. Glover filed his charge with the EEOC on April 1, 2013, HWD argued that to obtain relief, any purported class member must have experienced discrimination within 300 days of that date, i.e. June 5, 2012, at the earliest. According to HWD, any alleged discrimination occurring prior to that date was time-barred and argued a number of other procedural reasons why the EEOC’s claims were not appropriate. The EEOC took the opposite position, arguing that it was alleging a “pattern or practice” of discrimination on behalf of aggrieved individuals. And, because this was a continuing violation, the June 5, 2012 cutoff did not apply. [Recall that if the “continuing violation” doctrine applied, individuals who experienced discrimination prior to the 300-day cutoff could still obtain relief through the EEOC’s claim if part of the violation fell within the 300-day window.]

The Court’s analysis of HWD’s limitations argument

The District Court reached three distinct conclusions – all in favor of the EEOC:

First, the Court held that while Sections 706 and 707 were intended to address different forms of discrimination with unique remedies, the EEOC can use a pattern or practice theory to recover on behalf of aggrieved individuals under both Sections.

Second, the Court agreed with the EEOC that the continuing violation exception can toll Section 706’s timely filing requirement for pattern-or-practice claims.

Finally, although it was too early to determine whether the EEOC met its burden of proving that HWD’s conduct was indeed a continuing violation, the Court determined that the EEOC’s claim survived HWD’s motion to dismiss for two reasons:

  • The subject matter of the discrimination remain unchanged with regard to the ADA claim: the EEOC alleged that HWD used applicants’ workers’ compensation history to perpetuate a pattern or practice of discriminatory failure to hire based on disability. Similarly, the subject matter of the discrimination also remained unchanged with regard to the ADEA claim – the EEOC alleged that HWD subjected applicants to improper hiring practices based on their age (40 and above).
  • The discrimination occurred frequently – the EEOC alleged that HWD routinely performed these background searches on all applicants before the interview and hired applicants with significantly lower workers compensation injury and claims histories. The EEOC also alleged frequency with regard to HWD’s failure to hire applicants who were 40 or older.

It remains to be seen whether the EEOC would meet its burden to demonstrate that there was indeed, a continuing violation. But for now, the Court has denied HWD’s motions to dismiss claims of EEOC class members for ADA failures to hire before June 5, 2012 and for ADEA failures to hire before February 7, 2014.

Takeaways for Employers

This is an important decision for employers, especially those sued in the Tenth Circuit as this could result in a significant increase in the number of aggrieved individuals who claim membership in an EEOC pattern-or-practice class. Employers are also now potentially exposed to a wider range of relief (including compensatory and punitive damages) – not merely equitable relief – for pattern and practice suits brought by the EEOC.

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Labor & Employment Team.

By Honore Hishamunda and Alex S. Drummond

Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs in disability discrimination cases often have sympathetic facts on their side. A recent decision out of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, however, highlighted that courts are tasked with applying the law in such cases even if doing so leads to a loss for a sympathetic plaintiff.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), among other things, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees qualified to perform the essential functions of their jobs and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the ADA. Additionally, ADA cases often involve sympathetic plaintiffs. However, a recent First Circuit Court of Appeals decision – Sepulveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC – highlighted the importance of applying the law in such cases even where doing so results in a loss for a sympathetic plaintiff.

The plaintiff in the case was an assistant manager for a fast food franchise. One evening while depositing money on behalf of his employer, plaintiff was “attacked at gunpoint, hit over the head, and had his car stolen.” In the aftermath, plaintiff began to suffer from PTSD and depression. He then requested, as a reasonable accommodation, that he be excused from the company’s rotating shift policy (which rotated managers across the franchise’s district map and placed them on two different day shifts, and an evening shift). After initially agreeing to do so, the employer denied the request.

Plaintiff sued claiming a failure to accommodate. Further, the plaintiff alleged that after making his request, he was retaliated against as he was treated poorly by his co-workers. The First Circuit, affirming the District Court, granted employer’s motion for summary judgment on both of plaintiff’s claims. In doing so, the court noted that its decision was “a lesson straight out of the school of hard knocks” and that “[n]o matter how sympathetic the plaintiff or harrowing his plights, the law is the law and sometimes it’s just not on his side.”

The First Circuit held that the employer did not have to provide any accommodation to plaintiff as he was not qualified to perform the essential functions of his job. Specifically, the court found that the ability to work on a rotating shift was one of the essential functions of his job. In doing so, the court noted that (i) both the employer and plaintiff admitted that rotating shifts was an essential function; (ii) the employer’s job applications for assistant managers and advertising for the same highlighted the need to work rotating shifts; and (iii) permitting plaintiff to bypass the requirement would hamper the employer’s ability to flexibly schedule the remaining assistant managers.

The First Circuit also held that the employer did not retaliate against plaintiff for asserting his ADA rights. Specifically, the court found that plaintiff’s allegations – which focused on being scolded by supervisors for bypassing the chain of command, feeling embarrassed by supervisors treatment, and being made to feel as if he was lying about his health conditions – individually and collectively fell short of statutorily prohibited retaliation. In doing so, the court noted that only treatment that could “dissuade[] a reasonable worker form making or supporting a charge of discrimination” or that produces “a significant, not trivial harm” is actionable. Further, the court found that plaintiff’s allegations fell short of this level and instead characterized his allegations as “nothing more than the petty insults and minor annoyances” which are not actionable under the ADA.

This decision highlights that, even in the ADA context, courts must and will apply the law even if doing so results in a loss for otherwise sympathetic plaintiffs.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Kevin A. Fritz

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Supreme Court’s decline of a Seventh Circuit appellate decision solidifies that where an employee is medically unable to return to work within a very short time period following a leave of absence, the employer has no additional federal legal obligation to provide additional leave, or hold the employee’s job open.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court declined review of a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision establishing a rule that leave of more than a few weeks in duration falls outside an employers’ reasonable accommodation obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case is Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.

Plaintiff took Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave for multiple herniated discs in his back. He notified his employer that he was scheduled for back surgery the same day his FMLA leave expired, and he requested another three months of medical leave to allow him to return to work. The employer denied this request and discharged his employment. Plaintiff sued, claiming that his employer failed to provide reasonable accommodation by denying him the additional leave.

What is interesting about this case is that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus brief in support of Plaintiff’s claims. The agency argued that any fixed period of post-FMLA leave can constitute a reasonable accommodation the ADA, and that employers have the burden of demonstrating this additional leave poses an undue hardship.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the argument, affirming summary judgment for the employer. In its decision, the Court concluded that leave requests beyond FMLA that extend for more than a brief period of time are never required under the ADA. The Court never answered the question of whether the additional leave request constituted an undue hardship because once it found that employees who are unable to perform their duties for extended periods of time are “not qualified” as defined by the ADA, the inquiry stops.

Now, the Supreme Court’s decline to review this holding establishes that, at least in the Seventh Circuit, employers do not have to provide significant additional leave following expiration under the FMLA because doing so would convert the ADA to a medical leave entitlement statute. Which it is not. The Seventh Circuit stands in opposition to four other federal appellate circuits and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which treat leave in the same manner as any other requested medical accommodation. Other appellate courts, including the Fourth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit have not litigated this issue up to the appellate level.

As the workforce continues to change its makeup, and individuals continue to take leaves of absences to attend to their personal needs, this area will surely continue to develop.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Kristina M. Launey and Myra B. Villamor

Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs who pursued numerous web accessibility actions under Title III of the ADA are now using website accessibility to test the limits of a different area of law – employment law – California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Over the past few years, we have frequently written about the proliferation of demand letters and lawsuits alleging that a business denied a usually blind or vision-impaired individual access to its goods and services because the business’ website was not accessible, in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state laws.

One firm that pursued many web accessibility actions under Title III and California’s Unruh Act (including a success in the Bags N’ Baggage case decided in plaintiff’s favor by a California state court) is now going after employers. In recent demand letters and lawsuits, they are alleging that employment websites are not accessible to blind job seekers, in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), California’s corollary to Title I of the ADA.

While this blog, and Seyfarth’s Disability Access Team, are focused on disability access issues affecting places of public accommodation that provide goods and services to the general public (not employees, though many of our team members are employment specialists as well), this emerging litigation trend is worthy of our discussion here because it is an extension of the tsunami of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits pursued under Title III, involving the same technological and other issues, as well as the same plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys.  But there is one big difference – the legal standard that applies to employment disability discrimination claims is different from the standard applied to disability discrimination claims brought against public accommodations.

Title III is unique from other anti-discrimination statutes in that it requires (with exceptions) businesses take affirmative, proactive measures to ensure individuals with disabilities are afforded equal access to their goods and services. FEHA prohibits discrimination against individuals in employment.  It requires employers, upon notice that an employee or applicant for employment requires a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of his or her job, or to apply for employment, to engage in the interactive process to devise such a reasonable accommodation.  The employer does not need to provide the employee or applicant’s requested accommodation as long as the accommodation provided is effective.

In the cases filed thus far, such as those by Dominic Martin, Roy Rios, and Abelardo Martinez in Orange County and San Diego Superior Courts in California last week, the plaintiffs argue that they are blind residents of California who want to enter the workforce, attempted to apply using the defendant’s online application, but could not because it was inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. They claim the WAVE tool confirmed the website’s inaccessibility (an automated tool like WAVE, while useful, cannot be relied upon to determine whether a website is accessible or not, let alone useable by an individual with a disability).

In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs claim that they twice asked the defendant to remove the barriers and were ignored.  Plaintiffs also claim that removing the barriers would take only a few hours (which anyone who has worked in the website accessibility space knows is rarely if ever possible).  Plaintiffs allege these requests that defendant remove the barriers were requests for reasonable accommodation, though they were sent by the plaintiff’s attorney and not the actual individual seeking employment; thus possibly perceived as litigation demand letters rather than legitimate requests for reasonable accommodation.  The plaintiffs allege that the companies did not respond and that they have a policy to deny disabled individuals equal employment by refusing to remove the barriers on the website.  Each plaintiff alleges only a single legal claim for violation of FEHA, even expressly noting he is not asserting claims for violation of any federal law or regulation.

Will these claims find any success in the courts under the applicable law?  We will be watching.  In the meantime, businesses that have been focusing efforts on consumer-facing websites to mitigate risk under Title III should be aware of this new trend (if you have not already received such a letter).

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Disability Access Team.

Edited by: Minh N. Vu.

By Kelsey P. Montgomery

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employee committed to taking opioids loses his job and his disability discrimination lawsuit because he refused to consider alternative pain management.

The “interactive process” required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended by the ADA Amendments Act, is a two-way street between an employee and his or her employer.  Consistent with this mutual obligation, a federal court in Ohio recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former employee who refused to consider alternative pain management for his degenerative disc disease and arthritis in his neck and back.

In Sloan v. Repacorp, Inc., No. 3:16-cv-00161 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 27, 2018), the plaintiff worked as a production manager for Repacorp, which manufactures and prints labels using heavy machinery.  While Sloan’s job required him to spend only a small portion of his time working on heavy machinery, he always worked around this equipment and his working environment was extremely dangerous.  As a safety precaution, Repacorp maintained a policy requiring employees to notify management if they were taking nonprescription or prescription medication.

A year before his termination, Sloan began taking morphine and Vicodin while at work.  Occasionally, he took the morphine in a manner inconsistent with his prescription and he did not have a prescription for Vicodin.  He secured the Vicodin from his mother and a co-worker.  Sloan did not inform his supervisor, or anyone else at Repacorp, that he was taking these medications.  After several months of using these opioids at work, an employee reported to management that Sloan was obtaining Vicodin from his colleague.  He was immediately removed from the manufacturing floor and required to submit to a drug test.

When he tested positive for hydrocodone (an  in Vicodin), Repacorp placed Sloan on leave and referred him to its Employee Assistance Program.  While on leave, Sloan disclosed his morphine prescription.  Fearing a “huge liability,”  Repacorp asked if there were alternative, non-opioid treatments for his pain condition that would not put the company and Sloan at risk.  Although Sloan tried, he was unable to reach his physician to make this inquiry.  He then told the company president, without having consulted his doctor, that he needed to “stay on [his] medication” and that he “wouldn’t stop taking it.”  The company president believed Sloan “chose drugs over his job.”  Because Repacorp did not have any positions that would permit an employee to safely use opioids in the workplace, Repacorp terminated Sloan’s employment following this conversation.

Sloan subsequently filed a lawsuit against Repacorp, alleging disability discrimination under Ohio law and the ADA.  He claimed that Repacorp failed to accommodate his disabilities by refusing to grant his request to use prescription morphine.  Sloan argued that he could have safely performed his job while taking the medication, and that his employer should have conducted a “direct threat” analysis before denying his request.  The Court disagreed, finding that Sloan impeded Repacorp’s ability to investigate the extent of his disability and the breadth of potential accommodations that it might have reasonably afforded to him by refusing to cooperate with the company’s request for additional information.  Without this information, Repacorp could not determine whether Sloan was a qualified individual able to do his job either with or without a reasonable accommodation.  Accordingly, the Court granted Repacorp’s Motion for Summary Judgement and dismissed Sloan’s case.

Employer Take Away

An employer should conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether it can accommodate an employee’s disability.  Had Repacorp simply terminated Sloan for violating its policy against taking medications at work, the Court likely would have decided this case differently.  Thus, it serves as a good reminder for employers to always document their attempts to engage in the interactive process.  If an employee is terminated after refusing to engage with his or her employer, the employer will have a strong defense to any subsequent disability discrimination claim.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

By Ariel D. Fenster

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that telecommuting can be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA when the employee is able to perform the essential functions of the position remotely and the request is for a finite period. Mosby-Meachem v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, No 17-5483 (6th Cir. 2018).

The Facts

The Plaintiff, an in-house attorney for Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division (MLG&W), requested to work from home for ten weeks while she was on bedrest from pregnancy complications.  MLG&W denied the request.

MLG&W maintained a rather strict policy that attorneys must be in the office from 8:30 am – 5:00 pm.  “However, [it] did not maintain a formal written telecommuting policy at that time, and in practice, employees often telecommuted.”

MLG&W argued that physical presence was an essential function of Plaintiff’s position. Plaintiff stood her ground and stated she was able to perform the essential functions of her position remotely.  In fact, Plaintiff knew she could perform the job remotely.  During the dispute over whether Plaintiff could telecommute, she was also working remotely.  Plaintiff also previously worked remotely for two weeks several years prior.

At trial and in favor of Plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim, the jury awarded Plaintiff $92,000 in compensatory damages and $18,184.32 in back pay.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed.  In its finding, the Court noted that MLG&W failed to engage in an interactive process as required by the ADA to determine if working remotely was appropriate. The Court further noted that one of MLG&W’s key pieces of evidence, the job description, was significantly outdated and unreliable (20 years old outdated!).

Additional Guidance

Unfortunately for employers, there is no bright line test on the issue.  Just a handful of cases have weighed in on the “telecommute dispute.”  The two most notable cases come out of the Sixth Circuit, Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services, LLC, and EEOC v. Ford Motor CoThe cases are distinguishable from Mosby-Meachem for two reasons.  First in Williams and Ford, the employees never previously worked remotely.  Second, the requests to work remotely were for unlimited periods.

Just last month, in Morris-Huse v. Geico, the Middle District of Florida granted Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment holding that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation because Plaintiff’s physical presence was an essential function of her position.  The Court, like many other courts, reasoned that telecommute disputes are highly fact specific and require a true inquiry into the essential functions of the employee’s position.

For some additional guidance, the EEOC has issued some limited guidance on the matter.

Five Helpful Tips

While there is no hard and fast rule as to whether telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, here are five tips that may avoid putting you in a telecommute dispute:

  1. Evaluate each and every accommodation request on a case by case basis.
  2. Engage in the interactive process with the employee.
  3. Determine if the telecommuting is for a finite period of time.
  4. Think about whether the employee will be able to perform the essential functions of his or her position while telecommuting.
  5. Maintain up-to date job descriptions that accurately reflect the essential functions of each position.

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.