reasonable accommodation

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 Paul Galligan and Tara Ellis

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers Continue to Labor over Pregnancy Accommodations.

Earlier this month, Plaintiff Caroline Ruiz filed suit in the Southern District of New York against her former employer New Avon LLC, contending that Avon failed to accommodate her high risk pregnancy, and instead hastily terminated her employment upon learning she was pregnant. Caroline Ruiz v. New Avon LLC, et al., 1:18-cv-09033. Ruiz, the former Global Head of North America Indirect Procurement at New Avon LLC, contends that she requested to work from home after her doctor recommended bed-rest for a week, because Ruiz had a high risk pregnancy. However, according to Ruiz’s complaint, Avon callously disregarded this recommendation, forced Ruiz to come into the office, and terminated her, due to fabricated performance issues.

The case raises some interesting questions, including, whether a pregnant employee’s request to work from home due to her doctor’s recommendation of bed rest is a reasonable accommodation, and whether the answer to this question changes based upon the nature of the employee’s job, the length of the anticipated bed-rest and the classification of the employee’s pregnancy as high risk.

We will continue to watch this case, and will keep you posted of any developments.

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 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 Megan P. Toth and Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Washington State Office of the Attorney General has recently published a Guide outlining pregnant employees’ civil rights under the Washington “Healthy Starts Act,” a law which became effective July 23, 2017.

Under the Healthy Starts Act, employers with at least 15 employees in the state of Washington must provide certain accommodations to pregnant works, regardless of a disability, and the Act provides a list of nine accommodations to be considered, including:

  1. Providing more frequent, longer, or flexible restroom breaks;
  2. Modifying a no food or drink policy;
  3. Providing seating or allowing the employee to sit more frequently if her job requires her to stand;  and
  4. Limiting lifting to 17 pounds or less.
  5. Job restructuring, including a part-time or modified work schedule, job reassignment to a vacant position, or providing or modifying equipment, devices, or an employee’s work station;
  6. Providing for a temporary transfer to a less strenuous or less hazardous position;
  7. Providing assistance with manual labor;
  8. Scheduling flexibility for prenatal visits; and
  9. Any further accommodations the employee may request, which an employer must give reasonable consideration, taking into account any Department of Labor & Industries or other medical documents provided by the employee.

The rececently issued Guide outlines employers’ obligations with regard to the above suggested accommodations, and sets forth employer prohibited acts with regard to pregnancy accommodations under the Act. Specifically, the Guide clarifies that employers must provide accommodations 1-4 above and cannot request medical certification from a health care professional for those accommodations, and employers may request written certification from a health care professional regarding the need for the accommodations in 5–8 above, or for restrictions on lifting less than 17 pounds.

The Guide also outlines “prohibited practices” under the Act, which include: (1) Failing or refusing to accommodate a pregnant employee, unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship,” which is defined as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” (2) Retaliating against a pregnant employee who requests a change to their work environment (3) Denying employment opportunities to an otherwise qualified employee because of their needs, or (4) Requiring a pregnant employee to take leave if an alternative solution could be provided.

Finally, the Guide provides information for employees regarding how to report a violation of their rights under the Act.

So what now? The Guide does not actually change or alter employers’ obligations under the Act with regard to pregnancy accommodations, but rather clarifies and outlines what employers should be doing (since the law was enacted in July 2017). Therefore, employers should review their pregnancy accommodation policies and practices in Washington, and ensure they comply with the Act, as outlined in the Guide.

For more information on this, or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Absence Management & Accommodations Team or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

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 Kyla J. Miller and Dawn Reddy Solowey

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of a nursing home employee alleging she was forced to receive a flu shot to keep her job when she could not provide a note from a clergy member in support of her request, causing emotional distress that made her fear “going to Hell.” U.S. v. Ozaukee Cty., No. 2:18-cv-00343, (E.D. Wis. March 6, 2018).

In a complaint against Ozaukee County in Wisconsin, the Department of Justice alleges the County engaged in religious-based discrimination in violation of Title VII when their nursing home required all health care workers to receive the flu vaccination unless they could provide a note from a clergy member.

The Employer’s Flu Shot Policy

Under the employer’s flu shot policy, employees could receive a religious exemption from the mandatory flu shot if they had a pastor, priest, or another member of the clergy submit a written note stating a clear reason and explanation for the exemption. If the note was accepted, the employee was required to wear a protective face mask throughout the flu season. If an employee refused the flu shot and did not provide the proper written statement, the employee would be considered to have “voluntarily resigned.”

Employee Feared “Going to Hell” if She Received the Shot But Could Not Provide A Clergy Note

The employee allegedly viewed her body as a “holy temple,” and believed the Bible forbids foreign substances including the flu shot in the body. During a meeting with her supervisor, the employee stated she was not affiliated with any church or formal religious organization at the time, and therefore could not provide a note from a pastor. Instead, she volunteered family and friends who would attest to her sincere religious belief. The supervisor told the employee it would be her last day if she could not provide a proper letter from a clergy member.

According to the complaint, the employee felt forced to receive the flu shot.  Shortly after taking the shot, the employee “cried uncontrollably,” and experienced emotional distress including “withdrawing from work and her personal life, suffering from sleep problems, anxiety, and fear of ‘going to Hell’ because she had disobeyed the Bible by receiving the shot.”

Employer Takeaway

 It is not a “best practice” for an employer to require a clergy note to support a religious accommodation request, because an employee need only have a sincerely held religious belief–it is irrelevant whether they are a part of an organized religion.  This is especially important in light of the EEOC’s aggressive approach to mandatory flu shots in recent years, targeting employers who terminate employees who refuse the shot based on a religious belief. According to Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Charlotte District Office, “Title VII requires employers to make a real effort to provide reasonable religious accommodations to employees who notify the company that their sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with a company’s employment policy.”

There are several ways employers can minimize the risk of becoming a target for this type of litigation. Employers should narrow the applicability of their flu shot policies to those employees for whom the employer can justify the policy on health, safety or other legitimate business grounds. If an employee has a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a  job requirement, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation if it would not cause undue hardship. Employers should engage in the interactive process and properly assess what is a “reasonable accommodation” or “undue hardship” in the context of their workplace.  It is wise for employers to consult with counsel with expertise in religious accommodation to make this case by case assessment.

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 David J. Rowland and Megan P. Toth

Seyfarth SynopsisThe Eleventh Circuit is the next to find a long-term leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Just a few months after a recent and definitive decision by the Seventh Circuit that multi-month leaves of absence, even those that are definite in term and sought in advance, are not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Eleventh Circuit has issued a similar opinion. This decision may signal a growing trend that courts are attempting to curb the abuse of long-term leaves of absence under the ADA that has been rampant and debilitating to employers for many years.

In the recent Eleventh Circuit case, Billups v. Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, the plaintiff injured his shoulder at work and took Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave.  He was not able to have corrective surgery during this time, so under the employers medical leave policy, he was granted another three-month medical leave.  However, at the end of this period — a total of six months of leave — the employee was still not medically able to return to work. He told the employer that he had a doctors appoint in a month and would likely be released to work in six weeks, but it was unclear whether he would have any restrictions at that time. Thus, the employer terminated the plaintiff’s employment and he sued, alleging failure by the employer to provide additional leave as an ADA reasonable accommodation.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim on summary judgment. The plaintiff acknowledged that case precedent says that employers are not required to provide indefinite leaves. However, he argued that these prior decisions involved situations where employees suffered from chronic medical conditions that could continue indefinitely. In this case, the plaintiff contended that an unspecified leave was reasonable because there was a projected end date and once concluded, his medical condition would be resolved without the potential need for additional leave.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument finding that even though the plaintiff would eventually recover, his request was essentially an “open-ended request” for leave of a sufficient time to recover, which is not reasonable under the ADA.  The Court also noted that the employer did not violate the ADA because it already provided six months of leave and the plaintiff inarguably could not perform the essential functions of his job at the time of his termination, with or without a reasonable accommodation and therefore he was not a qualified individual.  Thus, the court found that regardless of the nature of his underlying medical condition and his projected but uncertain recovery, the employer was not required to provide continued long-term leave.

It appears that the Seventh Circuit is not the lone-ranger in its attempt to invalidate the EEOC’s historic and strongly advocated position that long-term leaves are required “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA.  If other circuits continue to follow suit, employers may no longer have a legal obligation to provide lengthy post-FMLA leaves of absence, without the need to justify the denial based on specific business needs.  This case also demonstrates the importance of requesting updated medical information from employees nearing the end of FMLA or other medical leave periods.

If an employee cannot medically substantiate that they can return to work close to the expiration of their FMLA leave, employers may have greater legal flexibility in determining whether or not to accommodate the request. While employers should be aware of this apparently growing trend and may choose to adjust their leave and accommodation approaches accordingly, they still must approach long-term and indefinite leave requests very carefully as there are conflicting decisions from other circuits and the EEOC’s position will remain unchanged unless the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately sides with the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits.

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 Team.

By David J. Rowland and Cheryl A. Luce

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Seventh Circuit sent shockwaves through the EEOC and through the employer community by concluding that multi-month leaves of absence, even those that are definite in term and sought in advance, are not required by the ADA.

To the surprise of many observers, and undoubtedly the EEOC, the Seventh Circuit held last week in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., — F. 3d — Case No. 14-cv-1141 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017) that “a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. Id. at 7. Judge Sykes, on behalf of a power panel that included Chief Judge Wood and Judge Easterbrook, analyzed the language of the ADA and concluded that it “is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” Id. at 2.

The facts of the case are straightforward. Severson had a chronic back condition that pre-dated his employment at Heartland that would occasionally flare up and affect his ability to walk, bend, lift, sit stand, move and work.  In June 2013, Severson experienced such a flare-up and took a leave from work.  Over the summer months, he submitted periodic notes from his doctor informing Heartland that he was receiving treatment and could not work.

Heartland approved his request for 12 weeks of FMLA leave. Two weeks before his leave expired, he informed Heartland that his condition had not improved and that he would need surgery the date that his leave expired, and that the typical recovery time for this surgery was at least two months.  Heartland notified Severson the day before his surgery that his employment with Heartland would end when his FMLA leave expired the following day and invited him to reapply with the company when he recovered from surgery and was medically cleared to work. He recovered several months later and, instead of reapplying, filed a lawsuit.  The district court awarded summary judgment in favor of Heartland on Severson’s ADA claims and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The EEOC filed an amicus brief and participated in oral argument.  In its opinion, the court took special care to explicitly reject the EEOC’s argument that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is of a definite, time-limited duration, requested in advance, and likely to enable to perform the essential functions of his job when he returns.  The court found the EEOC’s reading of the statute to equate “reasonable accommodation” with “effective accommodation,” a concept rejected by the Supreme Court in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391 (2002). Severson at 9.  More importantly, the court found that by the EEOC’s logic, the length of the leave did not matter and therefore transformed the ADA into a medical leave statute—“in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA”—which the court found “untenable.” Id.

The court left open the possibility that “intermittent time off or a short leave—say, a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks—may, in appropriate circumstances, be analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule.” Id. at 8.  But, relying upon prior precedent from Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 381 (7th Cir. 2003), the court found that the “[i]nability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.” Id.

This decision is the firmest and most comprehensive rebuke of the EEOC’s long-held and vigorously pursued position that long-term leaves are a required form of reasonable accommodation. The Chicago office of the EEOC, in particular, has leveraged multi-million dollar settlements in the past after suing employers that actually had long term, “multi-month” extended leave policies in place, but were unwilling to extend leaves beyond six months or even a year.  This avenue of ADA attack now appears blocked in the Seventh Circuit.

Employers must proceed with great caution in this area for several reasons. First, the Seventh Circuit’s decision arguably conflicts with decisions in the First, Sixth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits (at least according to the EEOC’s amicus brief at pp. 15-16 ).  As a result, employers with a national footprint cannot assume this same rule will apply outside of the Seventh Circuit.  Second, Severson could seek rehearing en banc, likely with the EEOC’s support.  Given the panel in Severson, though, a rehearing bid may be an uphill battle.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.