Category Archives: Americans with Disabilities Act

Responding to Violence in the Workplace – A “Catch 22” for Employers

Contributed by Michael Wong, August 10, 2017

Workplace investigation

The recent instances of violence in the workplace remind us of the complex task facing employers. Employers must maintain a safe work environment for employees while operating within the parameters of the many federal and state laws that may protect certain employee conduct. More importantly, because an employer has no objective “litmus test” for predicting which employee may become violent under particular triggering circumstances, there is no foolproof way to effectively eliminate the hazard.

Employers today can find themselves in a seemingly untenable dilemma when they have violence threaten to invade their workplace, as disciplining or terminating the problem employee can result in a legal claim as well.

In Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., 795 F.3d 941, 942 (9th Cir. 2015), the employer, PCC, terminated the plaintiff, Thomas Mayo, after he made threatening comments to three co-workers that he was going to bring a gun to work and start “shooting people.” After the threats were reported, the employer took the proper precautions by immediately suspending the plaintiff, barring him from company property, and notifying the police. The police took him to the hospital for medical treatment on the basis that he was an imminent threat to himself and others.

After taking three months of leave under the FMLA and Oregon’s equivalent state law, a treating psychologist cleared Mayo to return to work, but recommended a new supervisor assignment. Instead, the employer terminated Mayo. Plaintiff then sued PCC alleging he was terminated because of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law.

In Mayo v. PCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employee who made serious and credible threats of violence against coworkers is not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA or Oregon’s disability discriminatory law. In granting summary judgment to the employer, the Court held that an essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others, and that an individual is not qualified and cannot perform the essential functions of the job if he or she threatens to kill co-workers – regardless of whether such threats stem from a mental condition or disability.

What should employers do?

Against this potential liability minefield, an employer should develop an effective written workplace violence preventative policy. For those who already have policies in place, it would be a good idea to review your policies and practices with your legal counsel to make sure that these issues and any potential concerns are properly addressed.

Ask yourself the following questions to see if your policy needs to be modified in light of the recent lawsuits:

  1. Do your policies advise employees that they will be subject to discipline (up to and including termination) if they “fail to foster collegiality, harmony, positive attitude, and good relations in the workplace?”
  2. Do you have a statement that there is “zero tolerance” regarding threats or acts of violence?
  3. Do your managers/supervisors know what steps should be taken if there is a threat, complaint of bullying or violence?
  4. Have your managers, supervisors and employees been trained on identifying signs and symptoms of behavior which may predict potential violence (erratic behavior; comments regarding violence, homicide or suicide; provocative communications; disobedience of policies and procedures; presence of alcohol, drugs or weapons on the worksite; evidence of violent tendencies or abuse of alcohol or drug use)?
  5. Have your managers and supervisors been trained and regularly reminded about the importance of good documentation and dangers of bad documentation?

An Employer’s Guide on Service Animals and the ADA

Contributed by Amanda Biondolino, July 17, 2017

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability, and this includes not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual. A qualified individual is a person with a disability who can perform the essential functions on the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation includes making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to individuals with disabilities. If an employee with a disability can perform the essential functions of the job utilizing a reasonable accommodation, they fall within the protections of the ADA.

guide dog silhouettes

Silhouettes of a blind man with his guide dog

There are no bright-line limitations on what is reasonable or what is not. What if your employee asks to bring a service animal to the worksite?  Must an employer allow dogs or other animals on the premises alongside their employees if an employee claims the animal is needed to assist them in maintaining their employment? Perhaps. Although uncommon, requests for service animals have been litigated, and the courts often allow the issue to proceed through a jury trial, a very expensive process for any employer. Examples include a paraplegic physician utilizing her dog to pull her wheel chair, open and close doors, and retrieve items, and a mechanic with PTSD utilizing a service dog around the shop.

It is important to remember that Title I of the ADA governs employment, while Title II and Title III of the ADA govern places of public accommodation. A reasonable accommodation under Title I is not necessarily limited to a service animal as defined for Titles II & III. If an employee with a disability requests a reasonable accommodation to assist in the performance of his or her job, an employer should engage in a good faith interactive dialogue with the employee about his or her request. Failure to do so is a violation of the ADA. The employer should analyze the job purpose and essential functions, and consult with the employee to ascertain the precise job-related limitations caused by his or her disability and how those limitations would be overcome with a reasonable accommodation, such as the service animal or other alternatives. If the disability or need for the animal is non-obvious, an employer can request reliable documentation verifying the employee’s disability and the relationship of the animal to that disability.

Issues to consider include the nature of the worksite (i.e., office setting versus production facility), the relationship between the animal’s function and the employee’s disability, how well the service animal will improve the employee’s ability to perform his or her job, and the temperament and behavior of the animal. If an employee shows their request is reasonable, the employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business. It is important to keep an open mind and evaluate every request on a case-by-case basis. Although the employee’s preference should always be considered, an employer is not required to grant the specific request simply because it is the employee’s preference. The employer should implement the accommodation that is most appropriate for both the employee and the workplace.

For a refresher on the obligations of a business to accommodate its customers’ needs for services animals, read this article on service animals and the ADA.

Save the Date! Complimentary Webinar on May 11th: Are You Compliant with the ADA’s Current Guidelines?

Join Michael Wong on Thursday, May 11 at 12:00 PM CT for the latest installment of our Labor & Employment Quarterly Series as he discusses ADA compliance for businesses and in the workplace. Over the past few years the courts, EEOC and U.S. Department of Justice have broadened the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to increase the expectations on business owners, HR professionals, and supervisors – including through the broad interpretation of what is a disability, what information puts supervisors and businesses on notice of an employee’s disability, and the requirement that private businesses have accessible websites.

What does this mean for HR professionals and business owners? Join Michael Wong as he covers:

  • The ADA Interactive Process and reasonable accommodations
  • ADA website compliance
  • How to limit exposure and liability

Click here to register for this webinar!

Website Accessibility

Contributed by Debra Mastrian, February 21, 2017

Website accessibility continues to be a hot topic. Hundreds of businesses throughout the country have been sued in the past few years for failing to have accessible websites.  Retail businesses have been the primary target; however, financial institutions and now, the healthcare industry, are receiving threatening letters from high profile law firms, alleging that the businesses’ websites are not “accessible” and in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law firms threaten to file suit if the businesses do not make their websites compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Version 2.0 Levels A and AA (“WCAG 2.0 AA”), created by the World Wide Web Consortium, and demand a settlement, including payment of attorneys’ fees.

The ADA does not currently have an accessibility standard that private companies must comply with regarding websites. However, the federal agency charged with ADA enforcement – the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) – has stated its position that Title II and Title III of the ADA requires public and private entities that have websites to make their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities. Although no final regulation has been issued, and none is expected until 2018 at the earliest, the DOJ has initiated a number of enforcement actions against private companies and public entities.  In settling enforcement actions, the DOJ has generally required compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA. It remains to be seen if the enforcement actions will continue under President Trump’s administration, however, businesses must still take heed because of the threat of lawsuits by private law firms.

cloud-computer-tablet-phoneThere are steps businesses can take to reduce the risk of being sued or having liability, including:

  • Educate yourself and IT employees regarding WCAG 2.0 AA standard
  • Retain a website accessibility consultant/vendor to review your website using the WCAG 2.0 AA standards
  • Redesign and/or update your website to conform with WCAG 2.0 AA
  • Set up regular monitoring of your website for compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA and ensure that all new content is reviewed for accessibility before being added to the website
  • Adopt an internal website accessibility policy that includes a reporting mechanism for any complaints, issues or suggestions about accessibility to your website and online banking services
  • Distribute your website accessibility policy to technical support staff and vendors
  • Train employees on accessibility and current WCAG 2.0 AA standard
  • Put a statement on the homepage of your website (or a link to the statement) about your commitment to website accessibility, solicit feedback, and include contact information for reporting problems
  • Add alt-text, captions and other features that make your website more accessible  to individuals using screen reader or other assistive technology
  • Require vendors providing website, apps, online banking, advertising or other services, to make their products and services “accessible” in conformance with the ADA and WCAG 2.0 AA
  • Have a written agreement with vendors, who are providing website redesign, updates or monitoring, which includes compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility standards in the scope of the work being performed and request a rep and warranty regarding accessibility
  • Review indemnification provisions in vendor agreements to determine if the vendor agrees to indemnify you for claims resulting from the vendor’s negligence or failure to comply with WCAG 2.0 AA or ADA website accessibility standards

If you receive a demand letter, you should promptly report the demand letter to your insurance agent or applicable insurance companies. Employment practices liability (EPL) policies may provide coverage for website ADA claims brought by third parties. Media liability or cyber security policies may also apply, depending upon the policy coverage and exclusions.  Additionally, since the demand letter is a threat of litigation, you should implement a legal hold to preserve and protect all potentially relevant documents and information. Importantly, demand letters must be taken seriously. Failing to appropriately address may result in costly litigation. That being said, it is important to understand that settling with a private litigant does not insulate the business from litigation by the DOJ or other private litigants.

Website accessibility is an evolving area of law. Businesses should be aware of the issues and understand their potential exposure to threats of litigation.

Website Accessibility Lawsuits Under Title III of the ADA – Are you Exposed?

Contributed by Michael Wong, October 18, 2016

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) not only provides employment protections and accommodation rights to qualified individuals with disabilities in the workplace, it also requires reasonable accommodations in “places of public accommodation.” Places of public accommodation include businesses that are open to the public and fall within one of 12 categories listed in the ADA, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, day care facilities, recreation facilities, and doctors’ offices. The ADA’s mandate extends to newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation including privately owned, nonresidential commercial facilities such as factories, warehouses, and office buildings.

17103126_sTraditionally, Title III has meant that businesses with brick and mortar locations had to remove physical barriers to provide equal access and opportunities to individuals with disabilities (i.e. installing wheelchair ramps or elevators, accessible restrooms, and handicap parking spaces). However, courts and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) over the past few years have interpreted Title III to also require accessible public websites.

Even though the DOJ has not issued guidelines or standards for web accessibility for private businesses, it has been seeking to enforce Title III against private businesses. Moreover, over the past few years, more and more private litigants have been sending demand letters and filing lawsuits against businesses. Indeed, several have become “professional litigants” in this area, much like we have seen with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The number of cases filed alleging violations of Title III has more than doubled over the past few years.

While relief under Title III of the ADA is limited to injunctive relief (i.e. business is ordered to shut down website or make it accessible), successful litigants can recover their attorneys’ fees and costs. Additionally, some state laws provide for additional monetary damages. For example, in California the damages are up to three times the amount of actual damages, but not less than $4,000, plus attorneys’ fees and costs. It is noteworthy that California has taken some steps to address “high-frequency litigants” and exempted certain businesses from the full minimum $4,000 statutory damages. However, the potential exposure and liability for a Title III website accessibility claim is real.

What do businesses need to know and do?

First and foremost, check whether your websites are accessible. Though the DOJ has not issued formal regulations, it has recognized Version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as an appropriate standard. Next, promptly remediate any deficiencies identified in your websites. Note that sometimes it is more cost effective to create a new website than to make an old website accessible. Third, be on the lookout for further guidance. The DOJ has indicated its intent to issue a proposed rule regarding website accommodation. Finally, consult with qualified counsel on ways to limit exposure to potential accessibility lawsuits and how to respond to a demand letter or lawsuit alleging a violation of Title III.

Recent Federal Court Decision Requires Employees to Shoulder Some of the Burden of Disability Accommodations

Contributed by Steven Jados, October 3, 2016

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the laws of many states generally require employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to certain employees with disabilities. This requires the employer and employee to participate in an interactive process aimed at finding job changes that allow the employee to continue working. For many employers, that requirement raises many questions for which there are no simple, definitive answers—which forces employers to make accommodation decisions amid considerable uncertainty.

gavelbwBut the recent decision in Dillard v. City of Austin, Texas, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, may help employers handle situations when employees cause a breakdown in the interactive process. The plaintiff in the case, Derrick Dillard, was employed to operate machinery and perform manual labor until he was injured on-the-job in March 2011. Thereafter, he received FMLA leave and, after that ran out, additional discretionary leave. In early 2012, Dillard was cleared to return to work for the first time, albeit in a limited capacity that did not allow him to resume his former job.

In an effort to accommodate Dillard’s medical restrictions and return him to work, the City offered him a position as an administrative assistant, even though he had no relevant experience and his qualifications for the position were lacking. Dillard expressed reservations, but ultimately took the job in May 2012.  As an attempt to ensure that Dillard succeeded as an administrative assistant, the City provided him typing and computer training, allowed him to “shadow” another administrative assistant, and provided Dillard access to additional training programs. But Dillard’s skills did not improve and he did not pursue additional training. Instead, he played computer games, made personal calls, repeatedly arrived late, left early, or missed work altogether—and lied about his work time. By September 2012, the City determined that Dillard’s performance was unsatisfactory, and terminated his employment.

Shortly thereafter, Dillard sued the City, alleging that it unlawfully failed to accommodate his disability and terminated him because of it. The trial court ruled against Dillard, and, on appeal, the Fifth Circuit stated that the law required Dillard “to make an honest effort to learn and carry out the duties of his new job with the help of the training the City offered him.” But because Dillard did not do that, the court determined that Dillard was solely responsible for the breakdown in the reasonable accommodation process, and the City was not liable under the ADA or Texas State law.

Now, employers should note that this decision is not necessarily the law of the land for the entire U.S., because decisions of the Fifth Circuit are controlling law only in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Employers must also realize that reasonable accommodation cases are extremely fact-specific, which makes it unlikely that this outcome can be expected every time an employer faces an ADA lawsuit. In particular, if the City had not been so accommodating, and if the employee’s lack of good faith effort was not so clear, the case might have been decided differently.

The bottom line is that although employers must engage in good faith efforts to find a reasonable accommodation, the employee has the same obligation—so employers should not hesitate to document instances in which an employee stands in the way of making a successful accommodation, because such documentation may later provide a basis for disciplinary action, as well as a defense to claims of discrimination and failure to accommodate.

Sixth Circuit Decision Reminds Us That ADA Plaintiffs Must Reconcile Social Security Benefits Finding of Total Disability to Establish ADA Failure to Accommodate Claim

Contributed by Allison Sues, August 2, 2016

On July 28, 2016, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an unpublished decision that analyzed an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) failure to accommodate a claim involving an employee who had applied for and received social security benefits for her disability. This case provides a helpful reminder on how employers should handle ADA plaintiffs who allege that they can return to work with accommodation but elsewhere represent that they are totally disabled from working.

Social Securty Disability BenefitsIn Stallings v. Detroit Public Schools, Case No. 15-2428, the court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the school district on a former teacher’s failure to accommodate claim. A classroom teacher suffered from an arthritic knee and requested various, and sometimes conflicting, accommodations seeking to avoid classroom work. The school district did not accommodate her by removing classroom work from her duties and the teacher felt compelled to resign. She then applied for and received social security benefits. In her social security benefits application, the plaintiff asserted that she was completely incapable of working.

By following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., the Sixth Circuit determined that a statement of total disability in a social security benefits proceeding does not foreclose a plaintiff’s ability to show that she is a qualified individual under the ADA, meaning that she can perform the essential functions of her job with or without an accommodation. The Cleveland case instructs that plaintiffs must be given an opportunity to offer a sufficient explanation for the apparent contradiction. Cleveland reasoned that an employee can both be deemed totally disabled under social security law, which does not take reasonable accommodations into consideration, and a qualified individual under the ADA, where an employee who is totally disabled from working without an accommodation may be able to return to work with accommodation.

In Stallings, the plaintiff was unable to reconcile the contradiction between the finding of total disability in her social security proceedings and her assertion that she was a qualified individual under the ADA. The plaintiff argued that she could have completed the essential functions of her job with a reasonable accommodation – a four-month leave – but she had represented to the Social Security Administration that her disability was an ongoing condition and would prevent her from working for a period of no less than twelve months.

This case serves as a helpful reminder to employers that an employee’s statement of total disability – whether in social security proceedings, a Family and Medical Leave Act request, or even a doctor’s note – may not be considered the final word on whether that employee is a qualified individual under the ADA. However, the contradiction must be overcome by the employee’s ability to return to work with an accommodation.