By Danielle M. Kays and Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis: For the first time since the enactment in 2008 of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which broadened the definition of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Ninth Circuit addressed, and expanded, the definition of an individual who is “regarded-as” disabled under the act. The court held that a plaintiff establishes he is “regarded-as” disabled if he shows “an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment,” regardless of whether the impairment actually limits, or the employer perceives the impairment to limit, a major life activity. The decision reminds employers to proceed carefully when making personnel decisions regarding employees with injuries or impairments, even if they may not rise to the level of a disability.

Case Background

In Nunies v. HIE Holdings, Inc., the plaintiff Herman Nunies was a former delivery driver for HIE Holdings in Honolulu, who had requested a transfer to a part-time warehouse position. The parties disputed the plaintiff’s stated reason for his transfer request, but the plaintiff claimed he requested the transfer to a less-physical position because he had developed shoulder pain. Plaintiff alleged that the Company initially approved the transfer but subsequently denied it and forced him to resign after he reported his shoulder pain to his employer. The employer cited budget cuts as the reason for denying the transfer and advised plaintiff that his position no longer existed, but evidence showed the employer had an open warehouse position at the time of plaintiff’s termination.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit asserting disability discrimination under the ADA and state law, alleging that his employer forced him to resign because of his shoulder injury. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff could not assert a prima facie case of disability discrimination because he was not disabled under the ADA, among other arguments. The district court agreed, granting summary judgment to the employer. In its decision, the district court held that plaintiff did not have a disability and was not “regarded-as” having a disability under the ADAAA, because plaintiff did not provide any evidence that the employer subjectively believed that plaintiff “was substantially limited in a major life activity.” The district court further held that the plaintiff did not establish an actual disability because he “did not identify any major life activities that were affected by his impairment” — indeed, plaintiff had continued to work without apparent issue or limitation. As further evidence that plaintiff was not disabled, the district court held that plaintiff had not demonstrated that his shoulder pain substantially limited any activity compared to most people in the general population.

The plaintiff appealed, joined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) as amicus curiae. The EEOC explained it offered its position to the appellate court because other district courts in the circuit had “failed to heed” the broader “regarded-as” disability definition promulgated by the ADAAA.

The Ninth Circuit’s Ruling

The Ninth Circuit agreed that the ADAAA expanded the scope of the ADA’s “regarded-as” definition and that some district courts continued to rely on pre-ADAAA case law to apply the older, narrower “regarded-as” disabled definition. Specifically, the district court in the Nunies case had erroneously concluded that Plaintiff had failed to meet his burden of presenting evidence that his employer “subjectively believed that Plaintiff is substantially limited in a major life activity.” Based on the plain language of the ADAAA, the appellate court held that plaintiff was not required to present evidence that the employer believed that plaintiff was substantially limited in a major life activity. Instead, the plaintiff could simply show that the employer terminated plaintiff “because of” his knowledge of the shoulder pain, regardless of whether the employer actually perceived the shoulder pain as a disability, and regardless of whether or not the shoulder pain amounted to an actual disability. Notably, the Ninth Circuit’s expansion of the scope of the “regarded-as” disability definition follows decisions in the First, Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Circuits which similarly defined the definition under the ADAAA.

Additionally, although the employer had argued that the ADAAA “regarded-as” disabled definition does not apply to “transitory and minor impairments,” the appellate court noted that this exception is an affirmative defense with the burden of proof on the defendant, and not the plaintiff. The court held that the employer had not set forth evidence to establish plaintiff’s shoulder pain was transitory and minor.

Therefore, the appellate court held that Plaintiff had established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employer regarded him as having a disability.

The Ninth Circuit further reversed the circuit court’s holding that the plaintiff could not establish his shoulder pain was an actual disability. Specifically, the appellate court found that because plaintiff could neither work nor lift more than 25 pounds nor lift his arm above chest height without pain, he had identified two major life activities affected by his impairment. The court noted an impairment “need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict the activity” in order to substantially affect a major life activity. Therefore, the court found an issue of fact as to whether plaintiff had an actual disability.

Takeaways for Employers

The protections under the ADA, the ADAAA, and state law are ever-evolving and sometimes nebulous. As disability-related issues continue to increase in the workplace, employers should proceed carefully when considering personnel decisions involving individuals with potential injuries or impairments, as they may meet the “regarded-as” disabled definition. This decision is an important reminder to employers to ensure that any adverse actions taken against such employees are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons, and to carefully document the business reasons for those adverse actions.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating personnel decisions relating to employees with medical afflictions, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

 

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 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 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 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.