Americans with Disabilities Act

Supreme Court Applies "Ministerial Exception" to Teachers at Religious Schools

July 20, 2020

By Theresa E. Rusnak

On July 8, 2020, the Supreme Court analyzed the ministerial exception for employees who allege employment discrimination claims for the first time in nearly a decade when it issued its decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. The decision, which was issued in two combined cases on appeal before the Court, confirms the general principle under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that religious institutions must retain the right to select, supervise, and, if necessary, remove an employee who qualifies as a "minister" without interference by secular authorities. The Court construed the definition of “minister” broadly in holding that the ministerial exception applied to two teachers at religious schools who had filed employment discrimination claims pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) respectively.

Read More >> Supreme Court Applies "Ministerial Exception" to Teachers at Religious Schools

EEOC Issues New Guidance on COVID-19

April 20, 2020

By Theresa E. Rusnak

On April 17, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued updated guidance on COVID-19 in the workplace. The EEOC has been releasing information on the pandemic for employers since mid-March, and the most recent updates to the guidance primarily focus on how employers should accommodate employees during the pandemic as well as how to return individuals to work once the pandemic subsides.

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An Employee Has COVID-19. Now What Do I Do?

March 19, 2020

By Gail M. Norris

There is a lot of information available on the internet regarding an employer’s obligations in preparing for and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.  As a responsible employer, your organization has likely taken many steps to prepare for some of the work-related fall-out from this pandemic.

Still, if and when the first confirmed case of a COVID-19 infection in one of your employees occurs, it is normal to experience a momentary “panic freeze” about what to do.  This blog post lays out the basic rules to follow and resources to check.

Read More >> An Employee Has COVID-19. Now What Do I Do?

The Sound of Silence: Seventh Circuit Holds That Undocumented Misconduct is Still Misconduct

August 5, 2019

By Howard M. Miller

If you’ve had occasion to converse with a management-side employment lawyer (and somehow survived it), it seems the edict of documenting performance issues is tattooed on his/her forehead. I must confess in my own supervisor training I have warned that, in essence, “if it’s not in writing, it did not happen” (at least for purposes of trying to get a case dismissed on a motion for summary judgment). I still believe that documentation is always the safest course, but can an employer still fire an employee for a series of undocumented incidents and avoid having to go to trial when the employee disputes them? The Seventh Circuit has answered this question in the affirmative.

Read More >> The Sound of Silence: Seventh Circuit Holds That Undocumented Misconduct is Still Misconduct

A Higher Hurdle Imposed for ADA Plaintiffs in the Second Circuit

May 14, 2019

By Richard S. Finkel

It just became a bit more difficult for plaintiffs within the jurisdiction of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes New York) to succeed on disability discrimination claims brought against their employers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

The ADA prohibits employers from “discriminat[ing] against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to . . . the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees.”  An employer also may face liability if it refuses to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability and that employee can demonstrate that he or she can perform the essential functions of his or her job if provided with such an accommodation.  A plaintiff advancing either type of claim is required to demonstrate a causal connection between his or her disability and the adverse employment action.  Until now, the employee litigating his or her claim within the Second Circuit had that causal connection examined under a “mixed motive” analysis.

However, that recently changed in Natofsky v. City of New York, decided on April 18, 2019.  In that case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the same standard should be used to analyze disability discrimination claims brought under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (which applies to federal employers and employers operating programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance) and disability discrimination claims brought under the ADA.  The Court determined that, under both statutes, a plaintiff must prove “that discrimination was the but-for cause of any adverse employment action."

The Court’s adoption of the “but-for” standard means that ADA plaintiffs now face the same hurdle that employees advancing ADEA claims and Title VII retaliation claims face.

Read More >> A Higher Hurdle Imposed for ADA Plaintiffs in the Second Circuit

“Brute Reason” or Lack of Nuance: Seventh Circuit’s Twin Holdings That a Long Term Leave is Not a Reasonable Accommodation May Not Be a Panacea in Other Jurisdictions

November 29, 2017

By Howard M. Miller

In one of his more pithy lines, Oscar Wilde wrote, “I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable.  There is something unfair about its use.  It is hitting below the intellect.”  Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

For employers dancing on the head of the ADA’s pin of reasonable accommodations, the Seventh Circuit’s two decisions holding that a multi-month leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act is like a tropical breeze in the dead of winter.  The brute reason of the opinions is compelling, but will other circuits find the per se rules established in them simply too rigid?

In the first case, Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the employer granted an employee with a chronic back condition 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.  Two weeks before the leave expired the employee informed the employer, Heartland, that he needed surgery on the date his leave was set to expire with a recovery period of at least two months.  Heartland notified the employee that his employment would be terminated at the end of his FMLA leave, but that he could reapply for a position when he was medically cleared.  The employee sued and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission submitted an amicus brief on his behalf.  The Seventh Circuit directly addressed and expressly rejected the EEOC’s position that a long term leave of absence can and should be considered a reasonable accommodation.  In so ruling, the Court erected a monument to brute reason:

Perhaps the more salient point is that on the EEOC’s interpretation, the length of the leave does not matter.  If, as the EEOC argues, employees are entitled to extended time off as a reasonable accommodation, the ADA is transformed into a medical-leave statute — in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.  That’s an untenable interpretation of the term ‘reasonable accommodation.’

Just a few weeks later, the Seventh Circuit, in Golden v. Indianapolis Housing Agency, addressed the issue again, this time on particularly heartbreaking facts.  The plaintiff had taken 16 weeks of leave due to ongoing treatment, including a mastectomy, for breast cancer.  Despite the fact pattern that seemed to be undeniably sympathetic to the plaintiff, the Court followed its prior decision in Severson, holding:

While we sympathize with Golden’s plight, clear circuit precedent controls this case.  Under Severson . . . an employee who requires a multi-month period of medical leave is not a qualified individual under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act.

There was, however, a concurrence with the Court’s own brute reason.  Judge Rovner concurred that the Court was bound by Severson, but argued:

The ADA, by its terms, is meant to be flexible and to require individualized assessments of both the reasonableness of an employee’s requested accommodation and the burden on employers.  Holding that a long term medical leave can never be part of a reasonable accommodation does not reflect the flexible and individual nature of the protections granted employees under the Act.

Employers outside of the Seventh Circuit’s jurisdiction would be wise to pay careful attention to the concurrence in Golden and consider whether the views expressed by Judge Rovner may win the day in other circuits.  Right now, the Severson/Golden majority decisions are only binding in the Seventh Circuit, and have no applicability to local disability statutes such as the New York City Human Rights Law which permits open-ended long term leaves as reasonable accommodations.  In New York, employers must still engage in the interactive process with employees who request leaves beyond the FMLA period.  Going through that process and being able to articulate an undue hardship that may result from granting a multi-month leave is still the law and best practice in New York.

EEOC Issues Final Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues

September 29, 2016

By Sharon A. Swift
On August 25, 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its final “Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues.”  Along with the final guidance, the EEOC issued a Q&A publication and a Small Business Fact Sheet. Since 1998, the Supreme Court and lower courts have issued a number of significant rulings regarding employment related retaliation.  The guidance illustrates where the EEOC is in agreement with lower court rulings and, significantly, where the EEOC’s interpretation of the law differs from that of the courts.  It should come as no surprise that the EEOC takes a broad view of the protections afforded by the anti-retaliation provisions of the EEO laws it enforces.  The final guidance offers employers insight into how the EEOC will handle retaliation charges and suggests “promising practices” for employers to follow to avoid such charges.  Some issues of note include: The EEOC takes an expansive view of protected participation activity. The basic premise of “retaliation” has not changed.  Retaliation occurs when an employer takes a materially adverse action against an individual because the individual engaged in protected activity.  Protected activity includes participating in an EEO process (participation activity) or opposing discrimination (opposition activity). Both the courts and the EEOC recognize that participating in administrative proceedings or lawsuits to enforce rights under the EEO laws is protected participation activity.  However, the EEOC goes a step further, taking the position that participation in an employer’s internal complaint process is also protected participation activity.  This is significant because participation activity is so broadly protected.  Indeed, an employee need not have a reasonable good faith belief that discrimination actually occurred for participation activity (i.e., filing an internal complaint) to be protected.  According to the EEOC, even complaints made in bad faith or which contain false or malicious allegations are protected participation activity.  Further, it is the EEOC’s position that employers can be liable for retaliation if they discipline an employee for such bad faith actions taken in the course of participation. A wide range of actions are considered "materially adverse." Relying on Supreme Court precedent, the EEOC makes clear that in the context of a retaliation claim, a much broader range of employer actions will be considered “materially adverse” than in the context of a discrimination claim.  For purposes of a retaliation claim, a materially adverse action is “any action that might well deter a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity.”  Work-related threats, warnings, reprimands, negative or lowered performance appraisals, and transfers to less prestigious or desirable work or work locations all likely meet this standard.  Note, however, that an employer’s actions need not be work-related to be considered “materially adverse actions.”  According to the EEOC, prohibiting only employment-related actions would not be effective in preventing retaliation because the employer could retaliate by taking action not directly related to the employee’s employment or by causing the employee harm outside of the workplace. The EEOC lists the following examples of materially adverse actions:  disparaging an employee to the media, making false reports to government authorities, filing a civil action, threatening reassignment, scrutinizing work or attendance more closely, removing supervisory responsibilities, requiring re-verification of work status or initiating action with immigration authorities, terminating a union grievance process, and taking or threatening to take adverse action against a close family member. There is a lower standard for actionable "retaliatory harassment." The EEOC recognizes that sometimes retaliatory conduct is characterized as “retaliatory harassment.”  The standard for establishing “retaliatory harassment” differs significantly from the standard for establishing a discriminatory harassment claim.  To constitute unlawful retaliation, harassing conduct does not have to be severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.  If the alleged harassing conduct is reasonably likely to deter protected activity, it would be actionable retaliation, even if not sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. The ADA's interference clause is interpreted more broadly than the anti-retaliation clause. In addition to retaliation, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits interference with the exercise of ADA rights.  According to the EEOC, the interference clause is much broader than the anti-retaliation clause, “reaching even those instances when conduct does not meet the ‘materially adverse’ standard required for retaliation.”  However, the EEOC notes that in its view, the interference provision does not apply to any and all conduct an individual finds intimidating.  Rather it only prohibits conduct that is reasonably likely to interfere with the exercise or enjoyment of ADA rights.  Examples of such conduct include:
  • Coercing an individual to forego an accommodation to which they are entitled;
  • Intimidating an applicant from requesting an accommodation for the application process by indicating they would not be hired as a result of the request;
  • Threatening an employee with termination if they do not “voluntarily” submit to a medical examination or inquiry otherwise prohibited by the ADA;
  • Issuing a policy purporting to limit an employee’s rights to invoke ADA protections (e.g., a fixed leave policy that states “no exceptions will be made for any reason”);
  • Interfering with a former employee’s right to file an ADA lawsuit by stating that a negative reference will be given if a suit is filed; and
  • Subjecting an employee to unwarranted discipline, demotion, or other adverse treatment because the employee assisted a co-worker in requesting a reasonable accommodation.
The guidance includes some suggested "promising practices" for employers. The final guidance includes “promising practices” which the EEOC posits may help reduce the risk of violations.  However, the EEOC is careful to advise that adopting these practices will not insulate an employer from liability or damages for unlawful actions.  The “promising practices” include:
  • Maintaining written policies which include examples of retaliation, steps for avoiding actual or perceived retaliation, a complaint procedure, and a clear explanation that engaging in retaliation will result in discipline, up to and including termination;
  • Training all managers, supervisors, and employees on the anti-retaliation policy;
  • Establishing a process for reminding the parties and witnesses involved in an EEO matter of the anti-retaliation policy, and providing advice to managers and supervisors alleged to have engaged in discrimination on how to avoid engaging in retaliatory conduct or conduct which may be perceived as retaliatory;
  • Following up with employees, managers and witnesses while an EEO matter is pending to ask if there are any concerns regarding potential or perceived retaliation; and
  • Reviewing proposed employment actions, preferably by a designated human resource or management official, to ensure that employees and witnesses are not subject to retaliation.

EEOC Issues Strong Reminder to Employers About Their Obligation to Provide Accommodation Under the ADA

May 24, 2016

By Jessica C. Moller
In theory, employers are all generally familiar with the “interactive process” and the need to provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodation absent undue hardship.  But in practice are employers actually complying with these legal obligations?  Maybe not, says the EEOC. On May 9, 2016, the EEOC issued a strong reminder to employers about their legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act related to accommodation of disabled employees.  According to the EEOC, it continually receives complaints that indicate employers may not be fully aware of their legal obligations:  "For example, some employers may not know that they may have to modify policies that limit the amount of leave employees can take when an employee needs additional leave as a reasonable accommodation.  Employer policies that require employees on extended leave to be 100 percent healed or able to work without restrictions may deny some employees reasonable accommodations that would enable them to return to work.  Employers also sometimes fail to consider reassignment as an option for employees with disabilities who cannot return to their jobs following leave." The EEOC has recently taken a particularly close look at employer leave policies to ensure they are not so inflexible as to foreclose the possibility of a leave of absence being provided as an accommodation. So what exactly is a “reasonable accommodation”?  Generally, a reasonable accommodation is “any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.”  But what this means in any given situation will necessarily depend on a number of factors, including for example the particular position held by the employee, the particular restrictions the employee’s disability places on his/her ability to perform that job, and the projected duration of the restrictions.  Perhaps for one employee reasonable accommodation means providing a leave of absence after he/she has already exhausted any leave available under the Family and Medical Leave Act so that the employee is able to recover from a serious health condition before returning to work.  Or perhaps it means allowing an employee to return to work from a leave of absence in a light duty capacity while he/she completes recovery.  For another it could mean moving an employee’s work location to an area where he/she has easy access to a restroom, or restructuring an employee’s marginal (or non-essential) job duties so he/she does not have to lift items over a certain weight. It is also important to remember that although it will never be deemed “reasonable” for an employee, as an accommodation, to be excused from having to perform the essential functions of his/her job, whether something actually is an essential function is not always intuitive.  For example, is it an essential function of a firefighter’s job to be physically able to fight fires?  Perhaps not.  In Stone v. City of Mount Vernon, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision granting summary judgment to the employer in an ADA lawsuit filed by a former fire department employee, holding that there was a genuine issue of material fact warranting a trial regarding whether fire suppression was an essential function of the job.  Or is heavy lifting necessarily an essential function of a manual laborer’s job?  Again, perhaps not (according to the 1993 decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in Henchey v. Town of North Greenbush). A key take-away when dealing with accommodation issues is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.  That is why it is so important for an employer to engage in the “interactive process” with the employee and find out exactly what his/her limitations are and whether there is an accommodation that can reasonably be provided to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his/her job.  It may be that the interactive process reveals there is no accommodation that can be provided without imposing an undue hardship on the employer, or that will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his/her job.  If that is the case, accommodation need not be provided under the law.  But the employer will not know that unless and until it engages in the interactive process and finds out. Following predetermined policies and rules might seem to be the essence of fairness.  But when it comes to accommodations of disabilities, employers who follow rules too inflexibly can get into trouble.  One rule that employers should always follow is to engage in good faith in the “interactive process.”

EEOC Has Attendance Point Systems in its Sights

November 13, 2015

By John M. Bagyi
Attendance point systems undoubtedly have appeal.  These policies -- often referred to as "no fault attendance policies" because they assign points to absences regardless of the cause -- take the subjectivity out of attendance-related corrective action.  However,  to be legally compliant, an attendance point system must make allowances for legally protected absences. You may be thinking -- "how could this be discrimination?  We're treating disabled employees the same as all other employees."  Well, the ADA requires you to not only treat qualified individuals with disabilities the same as you would nondisabled employees, it also requires that you provide reasonable accommodations -- modifications or adjustments to the way things usually are done that enable a qualified individual with a disability to enjoy an equal employment opportunity.  Among the possible accommodations envisioned by the EEOC?  Modifying or changing policies. Not surprisingly, the EEOC now has employers with attendance point systems in its sights.  In fact, the EEOC has brought legal action against a number of employers who maintain attendance point systems that fail to except out legally protected absences. By way of example, last week, the EEOC announced a $1.7 million settlement with Pactiv LLC, an Illinois-based employer.  According to the EEOC, Pactiv maintained policies under which attendance points were issued for medical-related absences.  In addition to paying $1.7 million, Pactiv also agreed to revise and distribute a new attendance policy that will not assess points for disability-related absences.  As noted by the EEOC District Director -- "Employers need to get this message:  Inflexible, strictly enforced leave policies can violate federal law. . . .  As an employer, make sure you have exceptions for people with disabilities and assess each situation individually." The takeaways?
  • Review your attendance policy to ensure it does not provide for the assignment of points (or corrective action) when an absence is legally protected.  If it does, work with labor and employment counsel to revise your policy to bring it into compliance.
  • Educate supervisors and others involved in the administration of your attendance policy.

EEOC Issues Proposed Rule Addressing Employer Wellness Programs and the ADA

May 14, 2015

By Kerry W. Langan
On April 20, 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued a proposed rule to amend the regulations and interpretive guidance implementing Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) as it relates to employer wellness programs.  The EEOC also issued a Fact Sheet for Small Business and a Q&A regarding the proposed rule. By way of background, Title I of the ADA prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of disability.  This non-discrimination provision applies to compensation and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, including fringe benefits, whether or not administered by the employer.  It also limits the medical information that employers may obtain from employees and applicants.  The ADA, however, does permit employers to conduct medical examinations and inquiries, including voluntary medical histories, when it is part of a voluntary employee health program.  The EEOC’s proposed rule is intended to provide guidance to employers on the extent to which the ADA permits employers to offer incentives to employees to promote participation in wellness programs that are employee health programs. What is a wellness program and when would it be considered  an employee health program? A wellness program is a program or activity that is typically offered through employer-provided health plans to help employees improve their health with the goal of lowering health care costs.  Wellness programs often encourage employees to become more active, quit smoking, eat better, etc., by offering monetary or other rewards or incentives for doing so.  Some wellness programs obtain medical information from employees by asking them to complete health risk assessments or undergo biometric screenings. According to the proposed rule, a wellness program could be considered an employee health program if it is reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease.  In other words, it must:  (1) have a reasonable chance of preventing disease and improving the health of participating employees; (2) not be overly burdensome; (3) not be a subterfuge for violating the ADA or other employment discrimination laws; and (4) not be highly suspect in the method chosen to promote health and prevent disease. When would participation in a wellness program be considered voluntary? A wellness program that includes disability-related inquiries or medical examinations would be considered voluntary as long as the employer:  (1) does not require employees to participate; (2) does not deny access to health coverage or limit the extent of benefits for employees who do not participate; (3) does not take adverse action, retaliate against, interfere with, coerce, intimidate, or threaten employees who do not participate in the program or who do not achieve certain outcomes; and (4) provides written notice to employees (when the wellness program is part of a group health plan) that describes the medical information that will be obtained, the purposes for which it will be used, who will receive it, and how it will be safeguarded. Does the use of incentives to encourage employees to participate in a wellness program render it involuntary? No.  The EEOC takes the position in its proposed rule that the use of incentives, whether in the form of reward or penalty, will not render the program involuntary as long as the maximum allowable incentive available under the program does not exceed 30 percent of the total cost of employee-only coverage.  For example, if the total cost of employee-only coverage is $5,000, the maximum incentive for an employee under the plan cannot exceed $1,500.  This is consistent with the maximum allowable incentive amount under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) and the Affordable Care Act health-contingent wellness programs. Will medical information gathered as part of an employee’s participation in wellness programs be kept confidential? Yes.  The EEOC proposes adding a new subsection to its regulations relating to confidentiality to ensure that medical information collected through participation in employee health programs will only be provided to employers in aggregate terms and will not disclose (or be reasonably likely to disclose) the identity of any specific employee. While we await issuance of a final rule, here are a few steps that employers can take to ensure that their wellness programs comply with the ADA:
  • Confirm that wellness programs are reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease.
  • Audit the incentives offered under wellness programs to ensure that they do not exceed 30 percent of the total cost of employee-only coverage.
  • Ensure that employee participation in wellness programs is voluntary.
  • Provide reasonable accommodations to enable employees with disabilities to participate in wellness programs and earn whatever incentives are offered.
  • Ensure that medical information is maintained in a confidential manner, which includes training employees on handling confidential medical information, encryption of electronic medical information, and prompt reporting of breaches.
  • Establish a written notice to employees regarding the collection of medical information.
  • Do not deny health insurance or limit the extent of benefits to employees who choose not to participate in wellness programs.
  • Do not take adverse action, retaliate against, interfere with, coerce, intimidate, or threaten employees who do not participate in wellness programs or who do not achieve certain outcomes.