Broad Definition of Disability Can Provide Some Advantages for Employers in Disability Suits

The Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act greatly expanded the definition of what constitutes a disability.  Consequently, it increased the number of employees who qualify for the protections of the Act (or as I often lament, we’re all disabled).  A positive consequence of this broad definition of disability for defendant-employers is the increased likelihood that in any disability discrimination case, the facts may allow an employer to argue that the plaintiff was not replaced with someone outside the protected class (i.e., nondisabled). Where the threshold to qualify as disabled is so low, plaintiff employees, and replacements alike, likely to qualify as disabled. Which reminds me of Syndrome statement in the The Incredibles; “everyone’s super, no one will be."

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Two Recent "Yawn" Employment Cases from the Texas Supreme Court

There have been two employment cases decided by the Texas Supreme Court in the last several months. However, because I expect them to have little impact on Texas jurisprudence, I have not been compelled to write about them before today. However, in the interest of keeping the blog up-to-date with each of the employment cases from the Supreme Court of Texas, I will briefly cover them.

In City of Houston v. Proler, the Court held that a firefighter who had the inability to overcome his fear of running into a burning building was not disabled. Because of the unique set of facts and that the case involved the pre-2007 version of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act and pre-amendment Americans with Disabilities Act, I do not think this case will get much use in Texas employment law disputes.

Similarly, in Sawyer v. E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., the Court held that a plaintiff-employee cannot make out a fraud claim when the misrepresentation on which the fraud claim was based was the promise of continued at-will employment. The Court reasoned that since no employee has any right to continued at-will employment, no employee could justifiably rely on a representation or promise of continued at-will employment and therefore could have no viable fraud claim arising from such misrepresentation. The Court also held that employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement that contains exclusive remedies for wrongful termination were limited to those exclusive remedies and could not bring common law claims for fraud. Most Texas employees are not covered by collective bargaining agreement and of those that are, I doubt most of their CBA contain exclusive remedies for wrongful termination claims. For that reason, I expect this case to have little impact on Texas law.

You can access each of these opinions here:

City of Houston v. Proler

Sawyer v. E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

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Fifth Circuit Holds that Volunteer Firefighter is not an "Employee" for Purposes of Title VII

In an issue of first impression in this Fifth Circuit, the Court held that a volunteer firefighter making a Title VII claim of sexual harassment is not an “employee” for purposes of the statute and therefore had no legal claim.

The case arose from a suit filed by a former firefighter for the Livingston Parish Fire Department who claimed that she was subjected to sexual harassment during her tenure with the Department. She filed a charge of discrimination and later sued. The Department defended on the grounds that as a volunteer, Juino was not an “employee” for purposes of Title VII and therefore could not bring a claim. Further, the Department argued that it was not an employer for Title VII purposes because while its membership roster had approximately 70 firefighters, only three were paid employees and therefore they lacked the threshold 15 employees for Title VII coverage.

The trial court accepted the Department’s arguments and entered judgment in its favor. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was charged with deciding, for the first time in the Circuit, whether (and under what circumstances) volunteers are employees for purposes of Title VII.

The Court analyzed the two different approaches considered by the Circuit Courts that have addressed the issue --the threshold remuneration test and the incidents of employment relationship test. In the threshold remuneration test adopted by most of the Courts addressing the issue, the plaintiff-volunteer must make a threshold showing that she received remuneration or some other significant indirect benefit. The incident of employment test, adopted by two Circuits, treats remuneration as merely one factor in determining the overall employment relationship rather than the dispositive factor. The Fifth Circuit concluded that the threshold remuneration test was the proper test to apply in its jurisdiction.

Having determined that the threshold remuneration test was the appropriate test to apply, the Court analyzed Juino’s engagement with the Department to determine whether she was an employee. Juino received $2 per emergency call; life insurance; uniform and badge; emergency response gear and training. During her engagement, Juino responded to 39 calls for a total monetary remuneration of $78. These benefits, the Court concluded, were merely incidental to her volunteer service for the District and unlike the significant indirect benefits received by volunteer firefighters in other reported cases where the volunteers were determined to be employees (e.g., retirement and pension benefits, life insurance, death benefits, disability insurance, tax exemptions for unreimbursed business expenses, scholarships for dependents, reduced rates on commemorative license plates and limited medical benefits). The Court concluded that Juino’s indirect benefits were too insignificant to pass the threshold remuneration test and she was therefore not an employee for Title VII purposes.

The takeaway from this opinion is not only that volunteers are not covered by the protections of Title VII, but unpaid interns are also likely not covered. Moreover, if volunteers and unpaid interns are not “employees” for Title VII purposes, it follows that their numbers should not be counted in determining “employer” coverage under the statute.  Moreover, given that other federal employment statutes use the same definition of "employee", it is likely that volunteers and unpaid interns lack coverage under those statutes as well.

You can read the entire opinion in Juino v. Livingston Parish Fire District No. 5 here.

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Fifth Circuit Interprets Ministerial Exception Broadly in Case of First Impression

Last term the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the existence of the ministerial exception to many of the federal employment discrimination laws. This week, the Fifth Circuit took up the application of the ministerial exception for the first time since the Supreme Court’s opinion in Hosanna-Tabor and applied the exception broadly.

Philip Cannata was the Music Director at St. John Nuemann Catholic Church in Austin, Texas. He oversaw the Music Department’s budget and expenditures, managed and maintained the sound systems at the church, music room and sanctuary and rehearsed with the choir and accompanied them on the piano during Mass while running the soundboard. After eleven years of service, his employment was terminated. He filed a lawsuit asserting age and disability discrimination claims under federal law. The church moved to dismiss the case and eventually moved for summary judgment arguing that the ministerial exception and the First Amendment’s establishment clause barred Cannata’s suit. The district court agreed with the church and dismissed the claims.  

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment for the church. Of particular importance to the Court’s conclusion was the evidence demonstrating the importance and integral part that music plays in a Catholic Mass. The uncontroverted evidence established that “the person who leads the must during [a Catholic] Mass is an integral part of Mass and a lay liturgical minister actively participating in the sacrament of the Eucharist’”. Based on this evidence, the Court held that there was no genuine issue of fact that “Cannata played an integral role in the celebration of Mass and that by playing the piano during services, Cannata further the mission of the church and helped convey its message to congregants.” As such, Cannata’s claims fell within the ministerial exception and were barred.

This case is significant in demonstrating the potential breadth of the ministerial exception. Cannata was not ordained, did not conduct Mass, deliver a sermon or write the music or lyrics for the ceremony. He had no religious education, training or experience to be considered a minister and had no direct interaction with the parishioners. He worked only in the evenings and on weekends and all of the liturgical responsibilities belonging to his predecessor were reassigned to another individual precisely because he lacked the requisite education, training and experience. Cannata contended that he did nothing more than sit at the piano facing away from the congregation and play music.

You can download a complete copy of Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin here.

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Has the Expanded Definition of Disability under the ADAA Gone Too Far?

Daniel Schwartz at the Connecticut Employment Law Blog has an interesting post today about the effect the American Psychiatric Association's proposed changes the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual could have to the Connecticut body of disability discrimination law.  While Connecticut is unique, according to Schwartz, in its definition of disability and expressly includes mental conditions listed in the current DSM as disabilities, I wrote (facetiously) last year that under the ADA's new, expanded (and inclusive) definition of disability, having a disorder that compelled excessive masturbation (i.e., hypersexual disorder) could qualify as a disability under the American with Disabilities Act entitling an employee to all manner of reasonable accommodation in the workplace.

In determining whether a mental impairment qualifies as a disability under the ADA, plaintiffs sometimes argue that because the mental impairment is a recognized disorder under the DSM, it qualifies as a mental impairment under the ADA.  While the identification of a mental disorder in the DSM is not alone sufficient to satisfactorily show that an individual with that disorder is disabled, given the lower standard necessary to show that an impairment substantially limits a major life activity, it is not a stretch to believe that a trial court would find a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a mental disorder like hypersexuality, qualified as a disability.   I predict that eventually, Congress' massive expansion of the ADA will compel a trial court to recognize an individual as disabled under circumstances that were never contemplated by Congress and will be viewed as outrageous to much of the general public.  Until that occurs, and the media uncovers and widely reports it, there is little likelihood that Congress will revisit (or rein in) its extension of ADA rights.  

Related Links:

Could the EEOC Sue on Behalf of an Employee Who Wanted the Right to Masturbate at Work?

Proposed DSM-5

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Applicants with Trouble Going "Tinkle" May Be Entitled to Take Other Forms of Drug Tests as Reasonable Accommodation

In an informal discussion letter issued by the EEOC, the Commission suggests that an employer might be required to let an employee or applicant suffering from paruresis or "shy bladder" syndrome to satisfy drug testing obligations through an alternative test.

According to the discussion letter, paruresis:

is the inability to urinate in public restrooms or in close proximity to other people, or the fear of being unable to do so. Paruresis is generally considered to be an anxiety disorder, and typically is treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy. Your letter states that paruresis is also a chronic pelvic floor dysfunction. Individuals with paruresis sometimes are subjected to adverse employment actions because they are unable to pass standard tests designed to detect the illegal use of drugs, and are denied permission to take alternative tests that do not involve urination.

Assuming that the paruresis constitutes an actual disability rather than a perceived disability, the Commission suggests that the employee or applicant could be permitted to take a saliva, patch or other test (e.g., blood or hair) to satisfy an employer's drug testing obligation.  A "regarded as" disability is not entitled to any reasonable accommodation.

Is this a widespread issue?  Probably not, but it is important advice for an individual who suffers from paruresis or for an employer that has to address drug testing issues involving employees with this condition.

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Large Texas Employer Announces it Will Not Consider Applicants for Employment Who Use Products with Nicotine

One of North Texas' largest employers announced that it will not longer hire or consider for hire any individual who uses any nicotine product (i.e., cigarettes, nicotine gum or patches, chewing tobacco or electronic cigarettes).  Baylor Health Care Systems announced its new policy on the careers page of its website stating:

As a health care system committed to improving the health of those we serve, we are asking our employees to model the same behaviors we promote to our patients. Beginning January 1, 2012, Baylor will no longer hire individuals who use nicotine products. Applicants who profess to use nicotine will not have their applications processed. Anyone who is offered and accepts a position with BHCS will be tested for nicotine during our regular post-offer pre-employment testing. Applicants who test positive for nicotine will be eliminated from consideration and pending job offers will be rescinded.  We encourage candidates who do not pass the nicotine testing to consider taking steps to stop the use of nicotine and reapply for consideration after a period of 90 days. 

The policy appears to screen out any applicants, regardless of the type of product used containing nicotine and whether the product is use on non-working time off the employer's premises.  Smoking or nicotine dependence has not historically had success in the courts as being a recognized ADA disaiblity.  However, it will be interesting to see if in a post-ADAAA world, where the definition of disability has been greatly relaxed, this policy comes under scrutiny by the EEOC or applicants rejected for employment based on their use of products containing nicotine. 

Baylor is not the first hospital to implement such a policy.  However, similar policies are not without their critics.  The National Workrights Institute, a nonprofit human rights organization focused on workplace issues, has been quoted that "such policies are a slippery slope — that if they prove successful in driving down health care costs, employers might be emboldened to crack down on other behavior by their workers, like drinking alcohol, eating fast food and participating in risky hobbies like motorcycle riding." 

Presumably Baylor had its policy fully vetted by its legal experts and believes it can defend the policy.  However, a quick, admittedly nonexhaustive research search, failed to find any cases holding that nicotine addiction is not a disability under the ADAAA.  Only time will tell whether these kinds of policies will be upheld by the courts.

Follow me on Twitter @RussellCawyer.

Other Articles on Failure to Hire Tobacco Users:

Refusing to Hire Tobacco Users --Valid Argument or Just Blowing Smoke?

Hospital Hiring Goes Up in Smoke.

Hospitals Shift Smoking Bans to Smoker Ban

ADA Amendments May Open the Door for Nicotine Addiction Claims

Transitioning HR Professionals --Look to Verizon for Employment

Verizon agreed to pay $20 million dollars and ceasing using its no-fault attendance policy for  absences caused by impairments qualifying as disabilities under the ADAAA.  Whatever the size of Verizon's Human Resources Department, it looks like its going to need to be a lot larger.

As part of the settlement with the EEOC, Verizon agreed that before it would charge ANY absence against an employee under its no-fault attendance policy, it would determine whether:

  • the employee has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual as defined by the ADA;
  • the employee's absence was caused by a disability;
  • the employee, or someone else on the employee's behalf, requested a period of time off from work due to a disability;
  • the employee's absence have been unreasonably unpredictable, repeated, frequent or chronic;
  • the employee's absences are expected to be unreasonably unpredictable, repeated, frequent or chronic;
  • Verizon could determine, from the request by or on behalf of the employee or through an interactive reasonable accommodation process, a definite or reasonably certain period of time off that the employee would need because of a disability; and
  • the employee's need for time off from work poses a significant difficulty or expense for the business.

Let me say this again; Verizon agreed that it would investigate every single absence before it applies that absence against the employee under its attendance policy.  Don't believe me, here is the link to the consent decree entered in the case.  (Consent Decree).

So, if you are a Human Resources professional in transition or looking for a transition, consider applying at Verizon; its going to need the additional help.

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EEOC Takes Hog-Like Approach on Attendance as Essential Job Function

There's an old saying in rural America that "pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered."  We used the phrase to describe someone who, instead of being satisfied with what he has, gets greedy.  In the litigation context it can be used to describe a party that takes overly aggressive, unreasonable and untenable positions.  My fellow bloggers, Work Blawg and Employment and Labor Insider posts last week about the EEOC's apparent position that attendance is not an essential job function (or not working as Work Blawg refers to it) makes me think the EEOC might be getting a little Hog-like in its attack on employer leave of absence and attendance policies.  The issues comes up in discussions of Verizon's record-setting $20 million settlement with the EEOC over its no-fault attendance policy.  As Robin Shea points describes the dispute that was settled:

The case was about charging absences under a no-fault attendance policy to employees who missed work because of medial conditions that were 'disabilities' within the meaning of the ADA.  It does not appear that medical leaves were at issue.  Exempting ADA conditions from no-fault attendance policies is a huge deal.

With the Verizon settlement, the EEOC is apparently signaling that it believes an employer commits a violation of the ADA when it charges an employee absence against a no-fault attendance policy when the absence results from a medical condition that qualifies as a disability.  Because the ADAAA now renders everyone disabled, the EEOC's position is troubling.  It suggests that the EEOC believes that attendance is not an essential function of most jobs. 

The problem with the EEOC's position (and where it crosses the line from being piggish to hoggish) is that the ADAAA made no changes to what is considered an essential job function or the well-settled standard that an employer need not eliminate essential job functions in providing reasonable accommodation.   Certainly, the ADAAA has given the EEOC ample reason to be aggressive in litigating issues on what constitutes a disability or is a substantial limitation on a major life activity.  However, the ADAAA made no changes to the statute regarding what constitutes reasonable accommodation or essential job functions.  Most courts have held that attendance is an implicit, essential job function of most employment.  Consequently, the EEOC's position that attendance is not an essential job function and employees cannot consider absences caused by "disabilities" under no fault attendance policies is puzzling.  If accepted by the Courts, the EEOC's position would require employer's to investigate each and every absence to determine whether the employee is disabled and whether absence was caused by a disability. 

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EEOC Holds Hearing on Leave of Absence as Reasonable Accommodation

This week the EEOC held a hearing on whether new or updated regulations and enforcement guidance was needed with respect to providing leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation for disabled employees.  The EEOC has recently been very aggressive in bringing suit against employers that use maximum leave policies or "inflexible" policies that provide no exception for reasonable accommodation.  For example:

  • EEOC v United Road Towing Inc., No. 10-cv-06259 (N.D. Ill.) (failure to provide reasonable accommodations by terminating disabled employees after exhausting 12 weeks of FMLA leave and refusing to re-hire employees after they were released to return to work);
  • EEOC v. IPC Print Services, No. 10-886 (W.D. Mich.) (failure to provide reasonable accommodations by terminating an employee rather than granting him a part-time schedule because he had exceeded the maximum hours of leave under company policy);
  • EEOC v. Princeton HealthCare System, No. 10-4216 (D.N.J.) (failure to provide reasonable accommodations by terminating employees after either seven days or 12 weeks, depending on eligibility for FMLA);
  • EEOC v. UPS, Case No. 09-5291 (N.D. Ill) (failure to provide reasonable accommodations by terminating employee for exceeding 12-month leave policy);
  • EEOC v. Denny’s, Inc., No. 06-2527 (D. Md.) (failure to provide reasonable accommodations by terminating a nationwide class of disabled employees at the end of the company’s pre-determined maximum leave limit).

And of course, the EEOC reached a $6.2M settlement with Sears over its use of a maximum leave policy. (See here).  I predicted the demise of "neutral absence control" or "maximum duration leave policies" over a year ago.  (Post here).  Moreover, I discussed how an employer's inability to rely on such policies will adversely affect an employer's ability to handle leaves of absence for employees needing leave for non-work-related injuries, workers' compensation leaves of absence and leaves caused by pregnancy.  

Hopefully the EEOC's proposed regulations on the use of leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation, optimistically (but probably unrealistically) slated for Fall 2011 publication, will provide employers with needed guidance that will preserve the ability for employer's to continue to use neutral or maximum duration leave of absence policies.   

What others are saying about this week's hearing:

EEOC and employers differ on the use of neutral maximum leave of absence policies

EEOC Meeting and Forthcoming Written Guidance Address Leave Policies and Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA

Could the EEOC Sue on Behalf of an Employee Who Wanted the Right to Masturbate at Work?

There has been a lot of ink spilled and kilobytes written about how the ADA Amendments Act has substantially expanded the rights of individuals with disabilities to seek and obtain reasonable workplace accommodations.  (See post, post, post, and post).  The increase in the number of applicants and employees who qualify for reasonable accommodations and the types of impairments that now qualify as disabilities has me thinking about the unintended consequences arising with such broad and encompassing changes to the ADA.  Today I read about a potential consequence I had not been able to imagine. 

Elie Mystal wrote yesterday at Above the Law about an employee in Brazil sued and won the right to watch pornography and masturbate because she suffers from "a chemical imbalance that triggers severe anxiety and hypersexuality."  This started me thinking, could the EEOC bring the same suit against a U.S. employer on behalf of an employee who wanted breaks to watch pornography and otherwise relieve his or her stress caused by severe anxiety or hypersexuality (i.e., to masturbate)?  I think the answer, despite what Congress intended, is probably "yes".

First, is hypersexuality or severe anxiety a disability?  The ADAAA regulations say that "depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, OCD, and schizophrenia" are presumptively disabling disorders.  Severe anxiety is a recognized psychological disorder listed in the current version of the DSM and hypersexuality is a proposed diagnosis for the the DSM-V.  (check) 

Second, does it substantially affect a major life activity?  The EEOC's regulations instruct that whether a major life activity is substantially limited is not a demanding standard and should be viewed expansively.  Furthermore the Commission regulations include concentrating, thinking and the operation of the major bodily systems including the reproductive system as major life activities. Therefore, it should not be hard to imagine evidence that these disorders cause the employee difficulty with thinking, concentrating or the normal operation of the reproductive systems.  Moreover, how would an employer challenge whether these impairments and the preoccupations it causes limits the employee's ability to think or concentrate?  (check)

Third, are reasonable break times to relieve stress reasonable?  Unless the employer can show undue hardship, probably so.  Employees are permitted reasonable break times for reasons caused by other physical impairments such as frequent restroom breaks for impairments affecting the urinary or digestive systems; and frequent meal or break times for diabetics who need to test their blood sugar and eat small meals.  Consequently, it would be up to the employer to show that the requested accommodation is not reasonable and/or it causes an undue hardship.  (check).

Having concluded that the EEOC could bring this lawsuit under the ADA on behalf of a employee or applicant, I recognize that the likelihood of it doing so is less than zero; the political fallout would be disastrous for the Commission.  Just because the EEOC would not bring the suit, however, would not prevent an employee from hiring private counsel and bringing the same claim against his or her employer.  This example demonstrates just how far the ADAAA has gone to expand what qualifies as a disability.  Did Congress go too far when it passed the ADAAA?

El Paso EEOC Sues Starbucks over Height Challenged Barista

In a suit you don't see filed everyday, the El Paso District Office of the EEOC recently filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against Starbucks over the termination of an employee suffering from dwarfism.  According to the EEOC's Complaint:

Charging Part has a physical impairment, dwarfism. . . [and] is substantially limited in the major life activities of, including but not limited to, reaching, lifting, and performing manual tasks.  Charging Party was hired by the [Starbucks] as a barista, a customer service position.  The job description for the barista position stated that no prior experience was required. . .  On or about July 30, 2009, Charging Party requested the use of a stool and/or small step-ladder as a reasonable accommodation to enable her to perform the essential functions of her job.  With reasonable accommodation, [she] would have been able to perform the essential functions of her job; to operate the cash register and prepare beverages.

After the Charging Party requested a reasonable accommodation, [Starbucks] failed or refused to engage in the interactive process and failed or refused to provide the Charging Party with a reasonable accommodation.  On or about July 30, 2009, [Starbucks] terminated Charging Party's employment, claiming that she would be a danger to customers and employees.

In my quick, and admittedly non-exhaustive research while writing this post, individuals suffering from achondroplastic previous hitdwarfism have not fared well in suits filed under the ADA.  However, with the relaxed standard for qualifying for "disabled" status under the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act and its accompanying regulations (see post), the EEOC may have a stronger hand in this case if it can overcome Starbucks apparent "direct threat" defense.

You can review a copy of the EEOC's complaint here.

UPDATE:  On August 16, 2011, Starbuck entered a Consent Decree with the EEOC where it agreed to pay $75,000 to settle the charges of discrimination.  You can see all of the terms of the Consent Decree here.

New ADA Regulations Take Effect Next Week --Are you ready?

The EEOC published its final regulations interpreting the ADA Amendments Act on March 25, 2011.  Consequently, those regulations become effective on March 24, 2011.  The effect of the Act and these regulations is that large numbers of employees will qualify as disabled under the law thereby triggering an increased number of applicants and employees who may be eligible for reasonable accommodations.  Here are a summary of the regulations:

  1. Defines "major life activities" broadly to include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, working and the operation of a major bodily functions such as the immune system, special sense organs and skin, normal cell growth and digestive, genitourinary, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, cardiovascular, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal and reproductive systems.
  2. Clarifies that the term "substantially limits" is not to be a demanding standard; should be construed expansively; the impairment's limitations should be viewed in their active, rather than remissive, state; mitigating measures should not be considered; and the examination should not usually require scientific, medical or statistical analysis.
  3. Identifies impairments that will almost always substantially limit a major life activity such as:  deafness, blindness, intellectual disability, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV, multiple sclerosis, depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, OCD, schizophrenia, muscular dystrophy. 
  4. Confirms that temporary or episodic conditions (including those in remission) may qualify as disabilities and that it is appropriate to consider the additional time, effort or pain the employee experiences in performing a major life activity in determining whether it is substantially limited (i.e., the conditions under which the individuals performs the activity).
  5. Confirms that individuals qualifying as "disabled" only under the "perceived as" prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodation but those who are disabled due to "actual disability" or a "record of disability" are entitled to reasonable accommodations that do not cause undue hardship.

 You can access a full copy of the regulations here.

El Paso Court of Appeals Holds that Employer May Use Mandamus Petition to Challenge Trial Court's Jurisdiction Where Employee's Charge of Discrimination was not Timely

The El Paso Court of Appeals held this week that a Texas employer can use mandamus petition to challenge a trial court's jurisdiction where the plaintiff-employee failed to file his charge of discrimination timely.  A link to the opinion is here

EEOC Changes Tactics in Enforcing "Pregnancy" Discrimination Laws

The EEOC recently brought suit against the country's largest home builder on behalf of a pregnant employee who was denied a period of unpaid leave in addition to the maximum permitted under the employer's policies.  What is unique about this suit is that the EEOC brought the suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act rather than the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

According to the Commission's press release, D.R. Horton

denied [the plaintiff] additional unpaid leave time after her doctor placed her on bed rest for over seven months as a result of pregnancy-related complications. Although the company initially provided some leave time, it finally stated it was against company policy to provide the employee any more leave time, even if it was unpaid, and then fired her.

Prior to the passage of the ADA Amendments Act, it is unlikely that the EEOC would have brought this case under the ADA because most courts were reluctant to conclude that pregnancy was a disability.  Instead, the Commission would have had to show under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that the pregnant employee was treated differently than other nonpregnant employees who were similar in their ability and inability to work (i.e., similar work restrictions).  However, the EEOC is targeting employer leave policies that are perceived by the Commission as rigid.  An example of such policy is one that provides a maximum leave duration of six or twelve months.

One aspect of this tactic that should be troubling to Texas employers is the fact that Texas law uses the enforcement of a neutral absence control policy as a defense to a workers' compensation claim.  Where an employer uniformly and consistently applies a leave of absence policy with a maximum duration, an employee who is separated from employment for exhausting the available leave of absence, even if the absence is caused by an on-the-job injury, will have no workers' compensation retaliation claim.  Suits like the EEOC's suit against D.R. Horton may have the effect of requiring employers to make more frequent exceptions to these neutral absence control policies that might weaken their effectiveness as a defense in Texas workers' compensation retaliation cases.

 

EEOC Publishes Proposed Regulations Designed to Implement Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act

The EEOC recently published proposed regulations designed to implement provisions of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). The proposed regulations incorporate significant changes to the law and provide numerous illustrative examples. A full copy of the proposed regulations can be accessed here.  The following sections summarize some of the significant points.

Presumptively Disabling Impairments

The proposed regulations provide a list of impairments that the EEOC believes will consistently qualify as disabilities. These include: deafness, blindness, intellectual disability (formerly termed mental retardation), partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy HIV or AIDS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia. 

Conversely, the proposed regulations also identify several impairments that, when temporary or of short duration and having little residual effects, will not normally constitute disabilities. These include: common cold, seasonal or common influenza, a sprained joint, minor and non-chronic gastrointestinal disorders, or a broken bone that is expected to heal completely).

Substantially Limiting Impairments

The regulations suggest that whether an individual has a disability should not demand extensive analysis. In determining whether a physical or mental impairment substantially limits a major life activity, the proposed regulations direct that ameliorative or other mitigating measures (e.g., medication, medical supplies, learned behaviors, assistive technologies, surgical interventions or reasonable accommodations) should not be considered in determining whether the impairment is substantially limiting. Furthermore, for episodic or impairments in remission, the inquiry is whether the impairment would limit a major life activity when active.

Major Life Activities

The proposed regulations expand the definition of “major life activities” through two non-exclusive lists. The first list includes activities such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working.

The second list focuses on the body systems and functions and includes functions of the immune system, special sense organs, and skin; normal cell growth; and digestive, genitourinary, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, cardiovascular, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, and reproductive functions.

With respect to working as a major life activity, the proposed regulations jettison the concept that an individual must be substantially limited in the ability to perform a broad range and class of jobs for working to constitute a major life activity. Instead, the proposed regulations direct that the ability of the individual to meet the qualifications for the type of work at issue is the proper inquiry.

Regarded As Disabled and Reasonable Accommodations

The proposed regulation eliminate the requirement that an individual demonstrate the employer regarded the individual as disabled. Rather, if the individual is subjected to an action prohibited by the ADA because of an actual or perceived impairment, that alone will be sufficient to establish the individual is regarded as disabled. 

The proposed regulations also clarify that individuals who are solely disabled under the “regarded as” prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodations.

Texas Expands Employment Rights for Disabled

This legislative session the Texas Legislature passed, and the Governor signed, amendments that significantly expands the scope of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act ("Act") as it relates to individuals with disabilities.

The amendment provides that:

  • The definition of "disability" is to be broadly construed to the maximum extent possible and shall include impairments that are episodic or in remission that substantially limit major life activities when active;
  • Whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity should be made without consideration of the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures;
  • Being "regarded as having [a substantially limiting] impairment" does not include an impairment that is minor and is expected to last or actually lasts less than six months, regardless of whether the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.
  • No claim exists for non-disabled individuals for reverse discrimination;
  • No reasonable workplace accommodation is required if the individual's disability is based solely on being regarded as having an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.

The new law also adds a definition of "major life activity" that was missing from the Act.  Major life activity under the Act means:

caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. The term also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including, but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, and digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

The new law becomes effective September 1, 2009 and is not retroactive to conduct occurring prior to the effective date. 

What should Texas employers do to prepare for the new law?  Since the Texas amendments are identical to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (which was effective January 1, 2009), employers that have already taken steps to comply with the federal amendments may need to do very little.  For employers that have not addressed the changes made to the federal law should consider doing the following sooner rather than later:

  • Review all policies and procedures to ensure that they comply with the new laws (e.g., if there were definitions or examples of major life activities, conform the definition to the amendment; if there are instructions to consider mitigating measures in determining the severity of limitations, change those provisions to conform to the law);
  • Train your supervisors, human resources staff and employees responsibility for assessing requests for reasonable accommodation on the amendments;
  • Update Job Descriptions to ensure that capture all of the essential elements of the relevant job;
  • Focus in the interactive process --determine what the barriers are that need to be accommodated and then provide an effective accommodation that has the least adverse impact on the business.

With the state law mirroring the post-amendment ADA, there is no incentive for plaintiff-employees to file lawsuits under the ADA or in federal court as there might have been in the absence of the Texas amendments. 

 

Being Chronically Tired May Qualify as a Disability in Texas

A federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Texas held that chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) may qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the Centers for Disease Control, CFS is characterized by symptoms including weakness, muscle pain, impaired memory and/or mental concentration, insomnia, and post-exertional fatigue lasting more than 24 hours.  There is no known diagnostic test for CFS and physicians are left to rely on forensically unreliable self-reports of the patient to make this diagnosis.   Notwithstanding this inability to test for or confirm the existence of this "syndrome," the federal court of appeals covering Texas held that CFS might qualify as a disability that an employer must reasonably accommodate. 

In EEOC v. Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., L.P., the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment in favor of Chevron on an employee's claim that she was discriminated against and denied reasonable accommodation for her chronic fatigue syndrome.

The employee, Lorin Netterville, was first diagnosed with CFS in 1987 while attending school and caring for her children at home.  She received a six-week course of treatment and her symptoms disappeared.  In late-2000 Netterville applied for employment with Chevron and was eventually hired.  As part of the employment process Netterville completed a medical history questionnaire, where she failed to disclose a history of excessive fatigue with work or exercise.

Several years later Netterville was required to work long hours of overtime that included manually packing boxes and moving supplies as part of Chevron's office relocation. Netterville claims she begin to suffer sleep disruptions that included getting no more than 1-2 hours of sleep per night for 6-7 days at a time.  Once a month she claimed she would sleep 17 hours straight.  She also claims she "began to run low-grade fevers and to suffer from headaches, disorientation, pain in her temples, stiff joints, pain in her arms and legs, and numbness in her legs, as well as aphasia and problems with memory, concentration and decision-making at times she was unable to remember even her own son's name."  She became unable to sit or walk for more than thirty minutes at a time, was hypersensitive to light and sound, and experienced episodic crying spells and feelings of social isolation.  Approximately 1 year after her symptoms reoccurred Netterville was living with her sister who assisted her with daily living tasks like shopping, cooking, washing, showering, drying, dressing, and using the bathroom.  This assistance was primarily needed because of excruciating pain in Netterville's arms and morning nausea she experienced.

Netterville's physician suggested that she take a month off from work.  Because Netterville could not afford a month off without pay, she got her doctor to write a note advising for a two week break from work.  When Netterville presented her request to Chevron for the 2 weeks of time off, she inaccurately reported that her symptoms had reappeared 2 years earlier.  Because Netterville was hired by Chevron less than 2 years earlier, the company also began investigating whether Netterville had falsified her medical history questionnaire in addition to considering her leave request.  Ultimately Netterville was given her two weeks of leave.

Netterville's physician conditioned her release to return to work on additional accommodations.  He recommended that she be relocated to an office closer to her home.  Additionally, due to her alleged hand pain and concentration difficulties, the doctor also advised that Netterville needed to be in a job that allowed for alternate typing and reading rather than reading and typing for extended periods of time.  She also needed to be able to take a short nap during her lunch break.  When Netterville made these requests to her supervisor, he remained silent.  She was allowed, however, to return to work, and she was provided the accommodations she requested during her final 4 days at work.  Ultimately, Netterville was terminated for falsifying information on her medical questionnaire.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit on Netterville's behalf.  Relying heavily on EEOC-promulgated regulations and its compliance manual (the EEOC is one of the governmental agency litigants that gets to write the authority it then asks a court to rely on to find in its favor --something no private employer is allowed to do), the court of appeals held that Netterville was entitled to a jury trial on her claims because there were fact issues as to whether Netterville had a disability; whether she was terminated for a disability; and whether Chevron provided reasonable accommodation.

This case is an important reminder that any physical or mental impairment may qualify as a disability if it substantially limits a major life activity. Moreover, the major life activity substantially limited need have no bearing on an employee’s employment or performance of his or her job duties. With the passage of the ADA Amendments Act that substantially broadens the coverage of individuals with disabilities, expect more denials of and reversals of employer summary judgments in ADA cases.

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