ADA Cases Make The News

Cancer Victim Fired For Disclosing Brain Tumor Has Claim For Disability Discrimination

A U.S. District Court in Texas ruled that a  Houston P.F.Chang’s restaurant may have violated the Americans with Disability Act when it fired one of its restaurant managers three days after he disclosed that he had a brain tumor.

On June 8, 2009 Jason Meinelt was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He told his boss, Michael Brown, the same day and also told him that he would probably have surgery in August and could be out for six to eight months.  Brown was supervised by Glenn Piner.  Bown told Piner immediately about Meinelt's condition.

Two days later, Piner began an audit involving  employee clock-out time punches.

The next day, Meinelt was fired for improperly editing employees’ time records. Meinelt testified that he was “completely baffled” and “shocked” about the firing and that editing time was a common practice among all of the managers including the ones who preceded him.

P.F. Chang’s first argument, that Meinelt’s brain tumor was not a disability, was rejected by the Court. Under the ADA, a disability is a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  The ADA was amended in 2008, and the amendments specifically included cancer in its definition of what may be considered a disability. As the Court noted,  

Under ADAAA, "a major life activity includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to,… normal cell growth .. [and] brain .. functions. 42 U.S.C. s. 12102(2)(B). The disability test can be met by actually suffering an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or “being regarded as having such impairment.”

Therefore, since Meinelt was terminated after the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 came into effect, he was covered under its "more expansive definition" of disability according to the Court. As to P.F. Chang’s contention that Meinelt was fired because of the time entries, the Court had this to say:

[T]here is undisputed evidence of the temporal coincidence of Meinelt revealing his medical condition and the employer’s decision to fire him. The record contains ample evidence supporting an inference that Piner’s belief that Meinelt had improperly edited time was not the reason he terminated Meinelt. Piner fired Meinelt only tree days after Brown told Piner about Meinelt’s tumor. ..(citations omitted)

Summary judgment on the ADA claim is denied.

This decision means that Meinelt has the opportunity to take his case to the jury but it has broader implications.  It’s another victory for cancer victims who have been discriminated against by their employers.

Before the ADA amendments, these types of cases were routinely thrown out by courts which narrowly interpreted the ADA and held that the employees with cancer were not disabled --- and therefore not protected from disability discrimination. Those same arguments, raised by P.F. Chang’s in this case, failed and it’s about time. For another case on point  see here. For more about cancer discrimination and the workplace, see here. For the Meinelt opinion, see here.

Jury Hits Auto Zone With $600 Thousand Verdict For Failure To Accommodate Disabled Employee

 A federal jury in Peoria, Illinois returned a $600,000 verdict against AutoZone, the  Memphis-based national auto parts retail giant, for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to one of its sales managers. An additional claim for $115,000 in back pay will be decided at a later time by the presiding judge.

The case, brought by the EEOC, charged that AutoZone failed to accommodate its sales manager’s medical restrictions relating to his permanent back and neck impairments when it required him to perform certain cleaning tasks like mopping floors.The EEOC presented evidence that mopping floors was not an essential function of the sales manger position, that he requested not to be assigned to mopping floors along with medical documentation, and that mopping floors was a non-essential function of his job which could have been reassigned to other employees. The evidence showed that new store management refused his request, which lead to further injury and necessitated a medical leave.

The moral of the story is that employers had better take seriously the ADA’s provisions which require reasonable accommodations of the known physical limitations of its employees. What’s more, since so many employees suffer from permanent neck and back injuries, this verdict should be a big wake up call. Incidentally, this is not the first time AutoZone has tangled with the EEOC. For more about reasonable accommodations under the ADA, see here and here. For more about the case, read here.

  images: www.fortworthonthecheap.com     www.spartanburg2.k12.sc.us

Employee Rights Short Takes: Wage Discrimination, Paternity Leave, Disability Discrimination And More

Here are a few employee rights Short Takes worth noting:

It's A First: Major League Baseball Player Takes Paternity Leave

National Public Radio recently announced that Texas Ranger’s pitcher Colby Lewis became the first major league baseball player to take paternity leave. The new MLB collective bargaining agreement allows players 24 – 72 hours off due to the birth of a child so Lewis took advantage of it. Shortly after the news, NBC Sports reported that another player, Washington National’s shortstop Ian Desmond, was also preparing to take leave to be at his wife’s side during the birth of their first child. It comes as no surprise that some folks aren’t happy about the new rule. For more, read here.

New Rules For The Americans With Disabilities Act

New regulations were issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and will take effect May 24th. The new rules were mandated by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 ("ADAAA"). The law made significant changes with respect to the interpretation of  the term "disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Before the amendments, many employees who were discriminated against were not protected because the courts narrowly construed "disability" and determined that they were not disabled. The change in the legislation, which is spelled out in the final regulations, makes it crystal clear that the term “disability” should be broadly construed to include coverage.  As legal commentator noted:

The message from Congress and the EEOC for business couldn’t be any clearer. Stop focusing on whether someone is disabled and focus on the potential discrimination and reasonable accommodation.

The new regulations also list certain impairments which will almost always be considered a disability including deafness, blindness, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, and major depression. Employees with these disabilities were often excluded from coverage in cases interpreting the law before the ADA amendments. In other words, thousands of employees who had cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, etc. lost their discrimination cases because their employers argued, and the courts agreed, that they were not disabled under the ADA.

The bottom line is that thanks to the ADAA and the new regulations, ADA litigation will finally turn on whether the disabled employee was discriminated against – not whether he or she meets the definition of disabled under the Act. This is really good news and it’s about time. For more, read here.

Discrimination Lawsuit Raises Issue Of Who Is A Man

I ran across this very interesting story in the NY Times  about a recently filed discrimination case and it's worth talking about because it will make new law. The case is about  El’Jai Devoureau, who was born a female, but identified himself as a man his whole life. In 2006, after he began taking male hormones and had a sex change operation, he adopted a new name, and received a new birth certificate from the State of Georgia which identifies him a male. His driver’s license and social security records also identify him as a male. 

The legal problem for Devoureau came up when he began working part time as a urine monitor at Urban Treatment Associates in Camden.  His job was to make sure that people recovering from addiction did not substitute someone else’s urine for their own during regular drug testing. On Devoureau's second day, his boss confronted him stating that she had heard he was transgender. She asked if he had any surgeries. He refused to answer, stating that was private, and was fired.

Devoureau sued claiming discrimination. Michael D. Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund said it was the first employment case in the country to take on the question of a transgender person’s sex.

New Jersey is one of 12 states that ban discrimination based on transgender status.  The federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would provide basic protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity nationwide was reintroduced in Congress in April.

In its defense, Urban Treatment claims that the firing was legitimate since the sex of the employee in this particular position is a bona fide occupational qualification (“BFOQ”), an exception to employment discrimination laws which permits an employer to give preference to one group over another in narrow circumstances.  (for more about the BFOQ exception, see here)

This groundbreaking case will certainly be an interesting one to follow.

Fair Pay Act And Paycheck Fairness Act Reintroduced On Equal Pay Day

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009 shows that women who worked full time earned, on average, only 77 cents for every dollar men earned. The figures are even worse for women of color. African American women only earned approximately 62 cents and Latinas only 53 cents for each dollar earned by a white male.

Accordingly, Senator Tom Harkin most appropriately chose April 12, 2011 -- Equal Pay Day -- to reintroduce the Fair Pay Act of 2011. Harkin has introduced this bill every congress since 1996. The bill would require employers to provide equal pay for jobs that are equivalent in skills, effort, responsibility and working conditions. It would also require companies to disclose their pay scales and rates for all job categories.

Under current law a women who believes she is the victim of pay discrimination must file a lawsuit and go through what is almost always a long drawn out legal discovery process to find out whether she makes less than the man working beside her.

Many will recall that it took Lilly Ledbetter nearly 20 years before she discovered she was being paid less than men doing the same job which prompted her to file a lawsuit.  After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against her in 2007 -- because it held that the case was filed too late -- Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which helps level the playing field for victims of wage discrimination. The bill was signed in 2009  by President Obama – but it didn’t go far enough.

Harkin was also an original co-sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act which passed the House during the 111th Congress but was filibustered in the Senate. The Paycheck Fairness Act would close loopholes in the enforcement of the current equal pay laws, prohibit retaliation against workers for sharing salary information with co-workers, and strengthen penalties against employers for violations of equal pay laws.

The Paycheck Fairness Act was reintroduced on Equal Pay Day by Senator Kristin Gillibrand and Senator Barbara Mikulski. For more about it, read here.

It’s both disheartening and disturbing that women still must fight this hard for laws intended to effectively prevent wage discrimination which remains rampant in the workplace today.  For more, read here.

images: blogs.orlandosentinel.com  image.spreadshirt.com www.glbtq.comf

Employee Rights Short Takes: Scalia's Impartiality Questioned, Two Punitive Damage Awards, Disability Discrimination And More

Here are a few employee rights Short Takes worth noting:

Scalia Says Due Process Clause Does Not Prohibit Sex Discrimination

For those who may have missed it, Justice Antonin Scalia recently expressed his view that neither women nor gays are protected against discrimination under the 14th amendment of the Constitution. The statement was made in an interview this month published in the California Lawyer.

While it’s newsworthy because of the shock value alone, Scalia has expressed this view before. All one has to do is read the 1996 decision of  United States v. Virginia,  in which Scalia was the only justice to dissent from the Supreme Court’s decision to end the Virginia Military Institute’s 157 year old state supported practice of only accepting male students.

Not surprisingly, Scalia’s recent remarks angered liberals and was criticized by many legal scholars. Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-President of the Women’s Law Center, as reported in the Huffington Post, called  Scalia’s comments “shocking in light of the decades of precedents and the numbers of justices who have agreed that there is protection in the 14th Amendment against sex discrimination, and struck down many, many laws in many, many areas on the basis of that protection."

Scalia’s comments stem from his view that the 14th amendment , when written, was not intended to ban sex discrimination. As to Scalia’s originalist view, Eric Segall, a professor at Georgia State College of Law, had this to say in his letter to the editor published in the New York Times:

On issues of affirmative action, gender rights, gun control and campaign finance reform, among most other controversial constitutional law questions, Justice Scalia does not truly use an originalist methodology. Much more of his judicial style can be gleaned from looking at the Republican Party Platform than at the drafters of either the original Constitution or the 14th amendment.

For Justice Scalia, it is about results, not process, no matter how much he protests otherwise.

In the same vein, Scalia also also made news with the announcement of his role as a featured speaker at  Michele Bachmann's tea party / "Constitutional Conservative Caucus" later this month. For more about questions raised regarding Justice Scalia's impartiality, read Nan Aaron here.

EEOC Settles Disability Discrimination Case For 3.2 Million

Jewel –Osco’s parent company Supervalu  Inc. has agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle a federal lawsuit claiming that the company discriminated against its disabled employees.

The suit, filed by the EEOC, alleged that Jewel-Osco fired employees with disabilities at the end of their leaves rather than bringing them back to work with reasonable accommodations.

According to the EEOC, roughly 1000 employees at Jewel-Osco stores were fired under this policy. One employee who will benefit from the settlement is Rosemary Bednarek who is representative of the class.

Bednarek injured her back lifting boxes of chicken at a Jewel-Osco store in 2004. When she was able to return to work, her doctor advised that she should not lift more than 20 pounds but the company would not accommodate the restriction. Bednarek re-injured her back and was fired a year later.

This is a great settlement that will not only benefit the plaintiffs in the case, but also serve to remind employers of their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accommodate employees with disabilities -- including those who are injured on the job.

Two New Decisions On Punitive Damages

We do not often see employment law decisions in which punitive damages are addressed, so to see two in the last few weeks is worth talking about.

Generally speaking, punitive damages are available in some cases in which the defendant engaged in a deliberate or reckless disregard of the rights of others.

The jury, in determining the amount of the punitive damage award, is permitted to consider a number of factors, including a sum of money that would discourage the defendant from engaging in the conduct in the future as well as the income and assets of the defendant. Some large punitive damage awards are challenged on grounds that they violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Here's a brief synopsis of the cases:

Hamlin v Hampton Lumbar Mills, Inc.:  Plaintiff Ken Hamlin was injured while working at the Hampton Lumbar Mills. When he was released to return to work, the defendant falsely asserting that he was a “safety risk" and refused to to reinstate him as required by Oregon law.

The case went to trial and the jury awarded lost wages of $6000 and punitive damages in the amount of $175, 000. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the punitive damage award was "grossly excessive" under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution and reduced it to a sum equivalent to four times the amount of the compensatory damages.

In an instructive review of the case law on punitive damages, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed holding that a punitive damage award may exceed a single digit multiplier of a compensatory damage award without violating due process or being “grossly excessive.”

The case is an excellent reference point for anyone briefing an argument for punitive damages in an employment case.

Claus v. Intrigue Hotel, LLC:  In this age discrimination case, the jury awarded $50,000 in actual damages and $150,000 in punitive damages in a bifurcated trial. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict in a decision issued late last month.

In brief, Glenda Claus worked for Intrigue Hotels (including its predecessor) since 1984. Her last position was housekeeping supervisor. In 2007, Claus was fired and replaced by a 31 year old employee. 

Claus, 63 at the time, testified that she was completely blindsided by the news of her termination. With a record of positive job performance evaluations, a failure to admonish Claus regarding job deficiencies, and replacement with a 31 year old employee with performance issues, the Court of Appeals held that the jury could have rejected Intrigue’s after the fact rationale that Claus was fired for poor performance.

In addition, there was evidence that her new supervisor (Galaviz ) stated he wanted employees who would be at the hotel for the “long haul” and that Claus was “resistant to change.” The Court held that the jury could have reasonably taken these statements to mean that Galaviz did not want older employees and that Claus’s age was a factor in her firing.

The evidence also showed that Galaviz had been engaged as a human resources consultant and had an extensive knowledge of employment law at the time he made these comments and fired Galaviz.

Worth noting is the Court's statement that the same evidence which supported Claus’s substantive claim for age discrimination also supported her claim for punitive damages  As the Court pointed out,  both Copidas (the owner of the hotel) and Galaviz:

  • knew it was against the law to fire an employee because of age
  • fired a 63 year old employee with a spotless record
  • replaced her with a 31 year old with documented performance problems
  • promoted several younger employees with performance issues
  • altered its rationale for firing Claus several times and created pretextual reasons for firing her

In sum, the Court concluded that the jury’s award of punitive damages was supported by the evidence. The case was remanded to the trial court for an award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs -- a great victory for Claus and her lawyer.

This case is a good example of the kind of evidence which supports a claim for age discrimination as well as a claim for punitive damages. As stated above, since we don't often see decisions affirming a punitive damage award, these cases are worth noting.

images: newsimg.bbc.co.uk  www.pryers-solicitors.co.uk  www.beachvillaresort.com 

Employee Rights Short Takes: New Evidence Of Gender Pay Gap, Race Discrimination, Disability Discrimination And More

Here are a few short takes about employment discrimination stories that made the news this past week:

New Evidence Of Gender Pay Gap And Discrimination Against Mothers In Management

Women made little progress in climbing into management positions according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office yesterday.

As of 2007, the last year for which the data was available, women made up only 40% of managers in the United States work force compared to 39% in 2000. In all but 13 industries covered by the report, women had a significantly smaller share of management positions than men when compared to the overall workforce.

In addition, managers who were mothers earned 79 cents of every dollar paid to managers who were fathers.

The report was prepared at the request of Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, and chairwoman of the Joint Economic Committee for a hearing before that committee on Tuesday -- where witnesses  talked about the  "shockingly slow rate of progress"  for women in corporate management positions and the "motherhood wage penalty."

Several individuals who testified urged the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act as a partial remedy to the issues surrounding gender discrimination in the workforce.

For more about the report read the NY Times article here.  For a copy of the report from Rep. Maloney’s website and more about the hearing read and watch here.

Employee With Multiple Sclerosis Settles Discrimination Case For $1.2 Million

An ex-employee of the Madison New Jersey Board of Education with multiple sclerosis settled her disability discrimination case for $1,200,000, including attorney fees, as reported yesterday by DailyRecord.com and Lawyers USA.  Disability discrimination is prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Joan Briel, a former accounts payable secretary, was diagnosed with MS in 2002. She claimed that her employer retaliated against her by inappropriately increasing her workload, repeatedly harassing her and failing to take action on her requests for reasonable accommodation -- including her request to work on the first floor instead of the third floor.

Briel also claimed that the stress of the work environment caused her to relapse and that she was fired while she was on medical leave.

The case was heading for a jury trial when the settlement was reached. Ms. Briel will receive $412,000 in the settlement. Her attorneys will receive $877,303 for the work they did on the case. The court also awarded Briel over $43,000 in costs.

Plaintiffs in civil rights cases may recover attorneys’ fees – if they prevail -- in addition to their individual award in most cases. These legal provisions are intended to encourage attorneys to represent individuals who are unable to invoke the protection of civil rights laws because they can not afford a lawyer.

Discrimination cases are difficult to litigate and are often complex and protracted. Therefore, it’s not unusual for the attorneys’ fees ( on both sides) to be larger than the award, or greater than the amount in controversy.

This newly reported case is but one example of the potentially high costs to employers when employment discrimination cases are not resolved early.

EEOC Settles Race Discrimination And Retaliation Case For $400,000

The Cleveland office of the EEOC announced a $400,00 settlement of a class action race discrimination and retaliation case against Mineral Met Inc., a division of Chemalloy Company.

Evidence in the case showed that black employees were disciplined for trivial matters – such as having facial hair or using a cell phone -- while white employees were not disciplined for the same conduct. When one of the supervisors complained, it resulted in intensified racially discriminatory treatment and retaliation according to the EEOC.

The EEOC also charged that African-American employees were also subjected to other forms of racial harassment, including evidence that a white supervisor placed a hangman’s noose on a piece of machinery. (once again shocking that this is still going on)

Race discrimination in employment and retaliation for complaining about discrimination violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 images: www.house.gov  www.window.state.tx.us

Employee Rights Short Takes: Don't Ask, Don't Tell, 8 Million Dollar Verdict For Cancer Victim, Race Discrimination And More

Here are a few short takes about discrimination cases that made the news this week:

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Is Unconstitutional

United States District Court Judge Virginia Phillips ruled last week that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  (DADT) is unconstitutional because it violates both the first amendment free speech and fifth amendment due process rights of gay and lesbian service members. Judge Phillips is expected to issue an injunction that would bar the federal government from enforcing DADT though government lawyers contend that Phillips does not have the authority to do so. For a good NY Times editorial about it  read here. For the opinion, read here. 

Goldman Sachs Sued For Gender Discrimination

Three former female employees at Goldman Sachs sued the investment bank claiming that it is guilty of systematic discrimination against women. The lawsuit alleges that Goldman discriminates in pay and promotion and that a persistent pattern of bias has resulted in the underrepresentation of women in the firm’s management ranks. Sex discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For more about the case read here.

Wall Street has had an ongoing problem with sex discrimination. Morgan Stanley settled two class action lawsuits brought by thousands of employees for more than $100 million dollars in 2004 and 2007. Smith Barney paid out $33 million in settlement of a case two years ago.

Earlier this year, Goldman and CitiGroup were sued over allegations that the banking firms discriminated against working mothers. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have come close to the end of reading about these kinds of cases in this particular industry.

Roadway Express Settles Racial Harassment Case For $10 Million

The EEOC announced on Wednesday that a federal magistrate in Chicago granted preliminary approval of a 10 million dollar,  five-year consent decree which will settle a race harassment and discrimination case filed against Roadway Express and YRC, Inc. Race discrimination and race harassment violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The suit included allegations that the company subjected black employees at its Chicago Heights and Elk Grove Village facilities to a racially hostile work environment and racial discrimination including multiple incidents of hangman's nooses (unbelievable that this still goes on) racist graffiti, racist cartoons, and racist comments.

The EEOC also planned to present evidence that black employees were subjected to harsher discipline and scrutiny that their white counterparts and given more difficult and time-consuming work assignments than white employees.

According to the EEOC, black employees complained over a number of years about all of these conditions but the company failed to take any corrective action.

Cancer Survivor Wins $8.1 Million Verdict For Wrongful Discharge

Lawyers USA reported news of an $8.1 million dollar verdict earlier this month in a case against Michaels Stores, Inc for a Florida woman who was fired after taking time off to get treatment for cancer. Yes, getting fired because of cancer is still a somewhat regular occurrence I am sorry to report.

(Discrimination because of cancer violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. (“ADA”).Employees who work for companies with 50 or more employees are entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.)

According to the article, Kara Jorud was viewed as an exemplary manager until she went out for double mastectomy surgeries. After that, she received a number of calls from her supervisor urging her to come back to work even though she was projected to need nine to ten weeks of recovery time.

Her job was threatened four days after she returned to work in August of 2008, and within thirty days she was fired. Jorud was accused of a variety of petty offenses. She showed, with evidence from more than twenty co-employees, that others committed similar offenses and were not fired.

The jury awarded Jorud $4 million for pain and suffering, $100,000 in back pay, and $4 million dollars in punitive damages. The court will also be awarding attorneys fees and costs.

It’s not only illegal to fire someone with cancer, it’s a stupid business decision that can obviously offend the sensibilities of many potential jurors. A full and complete damage award –which can often mean a sizable verdict -- is not a surprising outcome in this kind of case.

 image: www.ajsgarage.com   www.topnews.in   www.appliedplanning.com

Southwest Flight Attendant Wins ADA Appeal

 Employee Fired For Taking Medical Leave Gets Jury Verdict Reinstated

When does too much time off for an illness justify a termination because of poor attendance? Not every time according to a case decided this past week from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Here's what happened.

Facts Of The Case

Edward Carmona worked for Southwest Airlines as a flight attendant. He was plagued with psoriasis since he was a teen. As an adult, Carmona developed psoriatic arthritis which causes painful swelling and stiffness in the joints during attacks of psoriasis on the surface of his skin.

During flare-ups, Carmona is in great pain and has difficulty walking and moving around. The flare ups occur three or four times every month and each flare-up lasts for three or four days.

In order to get time off as needed for his condition, Carmona filed for intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. He was granted FMLA leave between 1998 and 2005, until Southwest determined that he had not worked enough hours to be eligible for renewal.

After Carmona’s FMLA leave expired, he was no longer able to excuse absences caused by his psoriatic arthritis. What followed was a round of progressive discipline which culminated in termination because of an accumulation of points relating to unexcused absences.

The Lawsuit

Carmona sued Southwest claiming that he was terminated because of his disability in violation of  the Americans with Disabilities Act. (ADA)*.

In order to prove an ADA claim, an individual must prove:

  • that he was an individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA
  • that he was a qualified individual for his job, despite his disability,
  • and that he was discharged because of his disability

In order to establish a disability, Carmona had to establish that he had:

  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities
  • a record of such an impairment or
  • that he was regarded as having such a impairment.

After a jury trial which Carmona won,  the judge granted judgment against Carmon as a matter of law on the grounds that he did not present sufficient evidence of a disability.  Specifically, the judge found Carmona's intermittent limitations didn’t prove a substantially limiting impairment. In other words, the judge ruled that Carmona was not disabled as a matter of law and took away the verdict.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed in it's opinion issued this week. You can read the decision here.

In sum, it held that the verdict should stand because there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that:

  • Carmona had an impairment that substantially limited his major life activity of walking
  • he was a qualified individual for his job
  • he was terminated because of his disability
Take Away

This is a really good decision for those who have conditions which cause intermittent disabling flare-ups and need to take time off of work because of it. It will particularly benefit those employees who work for employers not covered by the FMLA (companies with less than 50 employees).

The case also has a helpful discussion on Southwest's core argument --- that Carmona was not qualified for the job because of his poor attendance.

It’s also  good decision for those with cases pending before the ADA amendments Act of 2008. The Court did not apply the amendments retroactively, yet still found for the plaintiff under the narrower pre-amendments law.

The Court also wrote about reinstatement as a remedy -- another topic we don't see very often in ADA opinions.

In sum,  this case is a good result for employees and instructive to employers on the interplay of attendance policies and the ADA.

( *Carmona also had a Title VII claim; the jury found against him on that claim )

Image: blog.cleveland.com

About Ellen

Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen's  a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman's issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net .

AIDS Discrimination Victim Gets New Trial

Admission Of EEOC "No Probable Cause" Determination Is Reversible Error

I ran across this case recently and I think it’s definitely worth talking about.  It deals with a real problem in discrimination cases that has been around for as long as I can remember and it affects just about everyone who files an EEOC charge.

The case, Byrd v. BT Foods, Inc., addresses the controversial issue regarding the admissibility of  EEOC findings at trial and it's a good result for employees.

What’s The Problem?

When an individual files an EEOC charge, the EEOC  conducts an investigation. At its conclusion, the EEOC issues a determination letter stating one of two things:

  1. there was probable cause to believe that discrimination, retaliation, etc. occurred or
  2. there was no probable cause to believe that a violation of the civil rights law occurred

After the determination, the EEOC issues a Notice of Dismissal and Notice of Right to Sue which gives the individual the right to go to court.

Here’s the potential problem for the employee who did not prevail at the EEOC (or its state counterpart).  At trial, the employer always tries to introduce the EEOC dismissal and no probable cause determination.

In effect,  the employer wants to argue to the jury, “the government investigated this case, didn’t find discrimination, and you shouldn’t either.”  It doesn’t take Clarence Darrow to figure out that this argument can be quite damaging to the plaintiff’s case at trial.

 What Happened In The Case

Cemeshia Byrd worked at Wendy’s in Coral Springs, Florida. Byrd filed a lawsuit against BT Foods (doing business as Wendy’s Coral Springs) claiming that she was discriminated against when she was terminated because she had Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). 

Discrimination because of AIDS is illegal in the U.S. under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's also illegal under many state civil rights laws, including the Florida Omnibus Aids Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act.

Before proceeding to court, Byrd filed a charge of discrimination with the Broward County Civil Rights Division, an agency which conducts investigations for the Equal Opportunity Commission.

After receiving a no probable cause letter of determination, Byrd filed a lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court claiming discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Before trial, Byrd filed a Motion in Limine -- which is a request for an order to exclude the admission of particular evidence at trial. Generally the gist of the augment on a Motion in Limine is that:

  • the evidence is irrelevant, highly prejudicial, or hearsay and
  • the jury should not be able to hear or see the evidence nor should there be any reference to it

In this case, Byrd asked for an exclusion of EEOC documents including the Notice of Determination and Notice of Dismissal of her EEOC charge.

She argued that the EEOC “NO PROBABLE CAUSE STATEMENT" written in capital letters in the Notice of Determination were highly misleading, unduly prejudicial, and too conclusory to provide any meaningful probative value . She also argued that the jury would be likely to give the dismissal and “no probable cause determination” more weight than is appropriate.

The judge ruled against Byrd and in favor of BT Foods on the Motion in Limine.  During the trial, according to Byrd, BT Foods made the reasonable cause determination the centerpiece of its defense.

Byrd lost her jury trial and filed an appeal. In it she claimed that the court’s admission of the EEOC findings constituted reversible error which entitled her to a new trial.

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Employee Rights Short Takes: Discrimination By Transportation Authorities Out Of Control

Claims Of Gender, Race, Disability And National Origin Discrimination By Transportation Authorities

Earlier this month, a group of female and Hispanic Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) employees filed a class action complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging that women and Hispanic workers were "pigeonholed in entry-level positions and grossly underpaid compared to non-Latino and male counterparts.

One day later, a federal class action was filed alleging that  racism and sexism "pervade the culture" of the Chicago Department of Transportation which includes referring to black employees as "Mambo Gorilla," "nigger," and segregating minority employees by assigning them to work only on the city's "gang-infested" South Side.

Last Thursday ,the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority  reached a settlement agreement resolving a class action lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The lawsuit alleged disability discrimination against visually-impaired Metro bus passengers by:

  • failing to announce stops on buses
  • failing to stop and pick up visually-impaired passengers
  • failing to provide schedule and route information in accessible formats
  • failing to make its public website accessible with screen-readers commonly used by the visually-impaired.

For more information about the settlement, look here.

Unfortunately, discrimination of all kinds in the government transportation business seems to be out of control.

 images:website.lineone.net

Employee Fired Because Of Depression Wins Right To Jury Trial

Banker Terminated When "Regarded As Disabled" And Because Of Perceived Mental Impairment Has ADA Claim

Disability claims involving mental impairments can be tough. That’s why this recent case from a federal district court in the Eight Circuit is an important and helpful read. Here’s what happened in the case of Lizotte v. Dacotah Bank.*

Facts Of The Case

Alfred Lizotte was an assistant vice president of commercial lending at Dacotah Bank where he had been employed since 2003.

On Thursday, November 30, 2006 Lizotte consumed somewhere between 10-12 drinks at a local bar. On his way home, “and for whatever reason”, he decided he “had enough of this shit”, drove to a cemetery, took a gun out of his backseat, and called his sister.

When his sister arrived at the cemetery, he told her that he “didn’t want to be here anymore.” She unsuccessfully struggled to get the gun and called the police.

Lizotte drove away, was stopped by the police, and taken into custody. He was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric inpatient unit for four days following the incident. 

On December 1, 2006 Lizotte called his immediate supervisor and told him that he was unable to come to work. On December 5, 2006 Lizotte’s physician faxed a Dacotah Bank “Certification of Health Care Provider” form indicating that Lizotte could return to full work duties in a week.

On December 8, 2006 the HR director (Bobby Compton) sent Lizotte a letter stating: “Because of the impact of your action in the community, and the ability to perform your job, we are placing you on Leave of Absence to allow us to review the information and consider the issue.”

On December 14, 2006 Lizette met with Compton and two officers of the bank. He was given a letter to sign which said that it was his last day of employment. In exchange for signing the letter he got $6,500.00 in severance pay. Lizette unwillingly signed the letter and thereafter received a “Notification of Employee” resignation form which he refused to sign.

The Lawsuit

Several months later, Lizotte filed a lawsuit in federal district court in North Dakota alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The complaint also asserted several state law claims.

ADA: What’s The Law?

The Americans with Disabilities Act  law is quite complicated but here it is in a nutshell.

In order for an employee to establish a prima facie case under the ADA, he must show he:

  1. is disabled within the meaning of the ADA
  2. is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation, AND
  3. suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability

The ADA defines disability as:

  1. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities OR
  2. a record of such impairment OR
  3. being regarded as having such impairment

If a plaintiff establishes all of those elements, the burden shifts to the employer to produce a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the discharge.

If the employer establishes a legitimate reason for the discharge, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the reason given by the employer is a pretext for discrimination --- meaning that it’s a “phony excuse.”

The bottom line is after jumping through all of these hoops, there must be evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that the individual’s disability “was a factor in the employment decision at the moment it was made.”
The Court's Opinion In The Case

Regarded As Disabled

The bank argued that Lizotte’s claim should be dismissed as a matter of law because he did not have a disability as defined by the ADA.

Lizotte contended that he met the definition of disability because Defendants regarded him as disabled and mistakenly  believed that his mental disorder substantially limited the major life activity of working .

The Court agreed with Lizotte.

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One Shocking Incident Of Disability Discrimination Supports Verdict For Employee

Judgment For Employee Due To Employer's Failure To Accommodate  

I don’t remember ever reading a case quite like this one. The facts are quite graphic so be prepared. The story revolves around an incident of a store’s failure to accommodate a disability which led to a tragic result.

What Happened In The Case

A woman identified only as A.M. came to America in 1981 from El Salvidor after civil war broke out. She started working at Albertsons in 1987. She worked in various jobs, but at the time of the incident giving rise to the case, she was working as a checker. 

In 2003, A.M. underwent chemotherapy and radiation for cancer of the tonsils and larynx. The treatment affected her salivary glands which caused her to drink large volumes of water and urinate repeatedly.

While at work, A.M. was required to have water with her at all times and needed to go to the bathroom frequently -- sometimes as often as every 45 minutes.

Most managers accommodated her but on the evening of February 11, 2005, A.M. encountered a horrific problem.

She worked a shift that day which began at 1:00 p.m. and was scheduled to end at 10:00 p.m.

By 7:00 p.m. there were only three employees in the store – A.M. who was working as checker, another woman who acted as courtesy clerk (and was not allowed to relieve a checker), and Kellie Sampson – the person in charge.

At 8:00 that evening, A.M. told Sampson that she needed take a break. Sampson asked A.M. to wait because a delivery truck was coming

Some time later, A.M., who had a line of customers waiting to check out, called  Sampson and told her again that she needed to go to the bathroom. Sampson told her that she was unloading the merchandise and that she had to wait.

About 10 minutes later, A.M. still had customers in the line. She called Sampson once more and told her that she really had to go. Sampson said that she was busy and unable to come to the front of the store.

Unable to control herself, A.M. urinated while standing at the checkout stand. She was having her menstrual cycle, and so she was drenched with both urine and blood.

Understandably, A.M. was shaky and humiliated though she did not think the customers saw what happened. When Sampson finally got to the front of the store, A.M. went into the bathroom to clean herself.

Sobbing, she called her husband to tell him what happened. A customer observed her crying, asked what was wrong, and A.M. explained that she had wet herself because no one let her go to the bathroom.

The customer helped her to her car. She had a horrible drive home and thought about killing herself.

When she got home, still nervous and crying, she took a long shower and tried to scrub the smell off her. She wouldn’t get out of the shower and her husband had to remove her.

After that, she was unable to return to work and began to deteriorate psychologically. She became listless and withdrawn. She refused to see family and friends. She feared that people would be able to smell the bad odor she sensed about herself.

She had crazy dreams and couldn’t sleep. Each day, she took multiple showers to try and remove bad smells from her body. She shaved off all of her body hair, hoping that the bad smell would go away.

Eventually A.M. told a doctor that had thoughts about killing herself. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital for several days.

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ADA Changes Better Late Than Never

New ADA Regulations Will Bring Necessary Change

I received a call from a reporter from MSNBC a few days ago. She indicated that she wanted to ask me some questions about the new Americans with Disabilities Act regulations recently put out by the EEOC.

The interview caused me to reflect on just how important the amendments to the ADA are --along with the new regulations --- and the struggle we have gone through to get here.

When the ADA was written, I remember being at a meeting in Cleveland with a group of employment lawyers which was sponsored by a committee of the American Bar Association. The guest speaker was a lawyer from D.C. and he was there to talk to us about the new legislation and give us a preview.

I remember listening to and reading all of these complex, confusing terms and thinking “this is going to result in tons of litigation and be a big nightmare." I walked out of the meeting and talked about my deep concern with some friends and colleagues from both sides of the bar.

We all seemed to reach the same conclusion – that this was going to be an ugly litigation mess -- and though we saw the handwriting on the wall, there was nothing we could do about it. The ADA was written and this is what it was going to say.

And indeed what our group of experienced employment lawyers predicted that day in 1990 turned out to be true. While the intent of the ADA was certainly noble, the way in which it was written has caused nothing but problems.

What’s more important is that the problems with the ADA have had a terrible negative effect on those individuals who were supposed to be protected by the legislation.

The ADA was intended to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. Because of the way in which the Act was written, combined with the way in which it has been interpreted by an exceedingly conservative federal judiciary, most cases got thrown out on summary judgment because the courts determined that the individual plaintiff employee was not disabled.

If he/she was not disabled, then he/she was not protected by the ADA from disability discrimination, and so they lost. Here’s an example of what I mean.  

A secretary gets fired for going to chemotherapy. We file a case of disability discrimination. The employer argues that cancer is not a disability as defined by the Act. The judge buys the argument and the case gets thrown out. (based on a true story)

That scenario occurred thousands and thousands of times. Employees with disabilities were getting fired, or not hired in the first place, or passed over for promotions – and the cases were thrown out of court because the employers argued that the person was not disabled so the ADA did not apply.

Those rejected included people with AIDS, people with cancer, people with MS, people with epilepsy, diabetes, with prosthetic devices and the list goes on and on.

As a consequence,  those of us who tried to represent these folks never even got to the stage of the case in which we had a chance to prove discrimination.

As I explained to the MSNBC reporter, in other discrimination lawsuits such as age, race, or gender discrimination cases, we don’t have a fight about whether the client is a woman, or over 40, or black.

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Great Disability Rights Opinion From Seventh Circuit For Employees And Their Lawyers

Employee With MS Wins Appeal In Seventh Circuit "Regarded As" Disability Decision

A case was decided by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last week that was an important victory for the employee as well as his lawyers.

In Brunker v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. the Court reversed judgment in favor of Schwan’s on Brunker’s disability claim. It also reversed the lower court’s testy imposition of sanctions against Brunker’s lawyers.

What Happened In The Case.

Frank Brunker worked as a delivery driver for Schwan’s delivering frozen food to its customers. In February of 2003, Brunker started experiencing shaking of his hands, slurred speech, dizziness, light headedness, and headaches.

The symptoms continued, Brunker went to the doctor, tests were taken, and Brunker was told that he might have multiple sclerosis.

Brunker went on disability leave for two months. Eventually, he went back to light duty work, and then back to work without any restrictions by his physician. He performed his job and was able to complete his route in the same manner as he had in the past.

Four months later, Brunker told his supervisor that he wanted to go to the Mayo Clinic for some tests. Around the same time, he stared to get written up for various performance issues.

When Brunker returned two weeks later, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his supervisor fired him citing “unsatisfactory performance” and "unable to perform essential job functions” on the termination form.

(Notably, Brunker’s supervisor backdated the termination form to September 9, the day Brunker left for the clinic and before his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.)

Brunker filed a claim in federal court for disability discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The lower court (N.D. Indiana) threw out the case and in an unusual move, sanctioned Brunker’s lawyers because of their discovery requests (attempts to get evidence to prove their case).

The Seventh Circuit Reverses

It would be tempting to go in to all of the reasons why the lower court’s opinion was just flat out wrong, but some of them don’t matter anymore since the Americans With Disabilities Act was amended to prevent precisely this result.

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Top 2009 Priorities for EEOC

There was an interesting piece by Catherine Moreton Gray which reported Peggy Mastroianni's (associate legal counsel for the EEOC)  talk at the Society for Human Resource Managers Employment Law and Legislative Conference  in Washington last week. In that discussion, Mastroianni outlined the Commission's top priorities for 2009.

Here's what she listed:  

Enforcement of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act: The EEOC will look closely at complaints it dismissed since May 27, 2007, the effective date of the Act to see if reinstatement is appropriate.  She said that the agency did not expect a surge in wage claims as a result of the new law.  It will be interesting to see if her prediction is correct.

GINA:  I wrote a post about the Genetic Information Non Discrimination Act in February.  In short, GINA prohibits the use of  genetic tests concerning an employee's own or family's medical history to make an employment decision.The EEOC is in the process of formulating regulations for enforcement of the Act.  There will be more to come about this law once the regulations are published.

ADA Amendments Act (ADAA):  The EEOC is working on proposed regulations for the ADAA. The big change of course is that the definition of the term disability will be construed broadly so that more people will be covered by the Act consistent with the Act's original intent. Mitigating measures, such as medications or prosthetic devices, can't be considered for purposes of determining whether a person is disabled.

I attended a Society for Human Resource Management Conference a couple of months ago.  The panel of management lawyers from the large firms all agreed on the advice to the HR manager attendees:  "treat everyone as disabled and accommodate." 

This is a good thing and it's about time.  According to Gray's article, one of  Mastroianni's remarks about the new amendments:  "employer's doing the reasonable thing won't have to make any changes."  We'll see.

Religious Discrimination:  I thought this discussion was  very interesting,  Three areas mentioned were:

  1. Scheduling cases: While an employer is not required to make other employees swap shifts to accommodate scheduling around religious observances, they can't interfere with employees switching on a volunteer basis
  2. Muslim prayer breaks:  Observant Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Employers may need to stagger breaks to accommodate this request so long as it does not pose an undue hardship on the business. This apparently has been a problem.
  3. Modifying duties: If pharmacists do not want to fill prescriptions for contraceptives on religious grounds, the employer may  have to accommodate and pass the prescription on to another pharmacist. Again, this is a story we have heard about, and it's good to see that the EEOC is tackling it.

We'll be talking more about these topics as the regulations and new cases get reported.

Image: www.theaccidentalitleader.com

Cancer Victim Wins Discrimination Case

Three cheers for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. In Eshelman v. Agere Systems, Inc., the Court issued a much needed opinion in favor of a cancer victim under the American with Disabilities Act . 

While it might seem obvious to some that discriminating against people who have cancer is against the law, it’s not all that obvious to most courts.

I represented a woman named Christine Hood several years back who was fired for going to chemotherapy treatments. Though it sounds outrageous to most, both the trial court and the court of appeals threw out the case finding that Chris was not protected under the law (the Ohio anti-discrimination statute).

The case, Hood v. Diamond Products, Inc. went all  the way to the Ohio Supreme Court which ultimately found that yes indeed, "cancer could be considered a handicap."  The decision allowed Ms. Hood to have her day in court and proceed with her claim (it took ten years). So while it saddened me to see that cancer victims are still fighting for their right to be protected from discrimination, it warmed my heart to read about this recent victory. 

Joan Eshelman was a twenty year employee diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. As a side effect of her chemotherapy Eshelman suffered  a cognitive dysfunction resulting in short term memory loss.To compensate, she carried a notebook  and also made arrangements for help with appointments which required driving.

With these adjustments, the parties agreed that she excelled at her job and she continued to receive outstanding performance evaluations. In spite of her strong record, Eshelman was selected for layoff  during a company restructuring in 2001.

Eshelman sued under the American with Disabilities Act. She didn’t allege that she was disabled, but instead claimed that she  was terminated  based on her employer’s belief that she was disabled, or because of her record of disability. The jury found in her favor and awarded $170,000 in back pay and $30,000 in compensatory damages in 2005. On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the verdict on January 30,2009.

Because Bailey's testimony afforded the jury a sufficient basis to conclude that Agere slated Eshelman for termination based on its perception -- whether accurate or not -- that her cancer-related memory problems rendered her unfit for any job . . . we must not disturb the verdict insofar as it is based on  a "regarded as" disabled theory.

Even though laws prohibiting disability discrimination have been around since 1974, it’s still really tough for cancer victims to fight prejudice in the workplace. The New York Times reported today that cancer surviviors are 37 percent more likely to be unemployed than healthy peers. That’s why this new Third Circuit decision is such an important case. People with cancer are often discriminated against but are unable to meet the requirement of permanent disability under the ADA and a result their cases are often dismissed. The ADA prohibits discrimination of those “regarded as” having a disability, or having “a record of” a disability in addition to those individuals who are actually disabled.

This case sets forth a clear and well reasoned decision for cancer victims seeking to challenge discriminatory employment decisions which affect their lives. The new ADA amendments should also help.

Merchandise Must be Accessible to Disabled

There was an interesting decision recently which affected the rights of the disabled: Californians for Disability Rights v. Mervyn's,LLC , that didn’t get the attention it deserved.   

An organization representing disabled individuals (Californians for Disability Rights) sued a retailer  (Mervyn's) claiming that its store violated the American with Disabilities Act and California state law. Disabled shoppers, the suit claimed, were unable to reach the merchandise because of the narrow pathways and the way in which the merchandise was displayed.

The Court of Appeals held that since a retail store was a place of public accommodation under the ADA, the store was required to remove architectural barriers and make its goods and services available to the disabled. The Court also noted that the store failed to provide adequate customer service as an alternative method of making the merchandise accessible.

According to Sid Wolinsky, one of the lawyers for the advocacy group representing the plaintiffs, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle last July:

"It means that every retail establishment that is newly built or substantially remodeled in the last 15 years - from 1993 on, the date of the Americans with Disability Act - must comply with regular building standards," said Wolinsky. "They have to provide accessible aisles.'"

While Mervin's said that this decision might force it to close stores and announced bankruptcy the day before the ruling,  this is nevertheless an important decision for disabled Americans and one that all retailers need to pay attention to.

Image: http://erachelboardandcare.org/yahoo_site_admin/assets/images/Wheelchair_symbol.262170947_std.gif

Doctor Who Fails to Provide Patient with Interpreter Gets Whacked

Doctors and hospitals got a sharp reminder about their need to provide interpreters for hearing impaired patients. 

A  Hudson County New Jersey jury awarded $400,000 to Irma Gerena who claimed that she was unable to participate in and understand her medical condition in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination when her physician,  Dr. Robert Fogari, failed to provide her with an interpreter.The verdict was reported in the New Jersey Law Journal last October.

According to the story, the plaintiff Irma Gerena was being treated for lupus. During the multiple office visits with her rheumatologis, Gerena, who had limited English skills and was deaf, claimed that she was unable to understand what her doctor was doing including :

  • the treatment she was receiving,
  • its risks or benefits,  and
  • what alternative approaches may have been available.

Gerena repeatedly requested an American Sign Language interpreter and gave Dr. Fogari an interpreter’s business card. She also had the interpreter call the doctor and explain the law to him.

Dr. Fogari claimed that he could not afford the interpreter’s charge of $150 to $200 and hour since he was only being reimbursed $49 per visit Gerena’s medical insurer. The jury sided with Gerena.

A previous New Jersey decision Borngesser v. Jersey Shore Medical Center held that the law’s requirement of “auxiliary aids and services " meant that "interpreters, video displays and note takers" may be necessary for “effective communication” during critical points of a patient’s care.

Doctors and hospitals need to be prepared to provide interpreters and patients need to be educated as to their rights to request them. The law provides that patients with severe hearing impairments should not be precluded from understanding and participating in their medical care and treatment as a result of their disability. 

Physicians who recklessly disregard the law or retaliate in the face of a patent's request may face a stiff penalty. Of the $400,000 jury award to Gerena, $200,000 was for punitive damages -- so doctors beware -- there's more to come.

Image: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/ibs_ez/images/drnpatient.jpg