Today’s case comes from 2003 and represents the start of a line of cases that I am not sure I have discussed before. I am authoring a chapter in a federal employment litigation treatise on disability discrimination and the case came up during the course of that work. The case is Felix v. New York City Transit Authority, 324 F.3d 102 (2d Cir. 2003). As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; court’s reasoning that a causal link between the major life activity and the accommodation is required; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.

 

I

Facts

 

In 1994, plaintiff was hired as a railroad clerk by the New York City Transit Authority. At the time, it employed approximately 3,417 railroad clerks who overwhelmingly worked in token booths and subway stations selling tokens, commuter passes, and fare cards. They also provided information to passengers. Only approximately 50 railroad clerks worked in office jobs, who were also deployed to work in token booth a few days a year. In November 1995, plaintiff was assigned as an extra railroad clerk relieving railroad clerks who were on breaks. While on route to relieve a railroad clerk on the northbound platform of the station, she was informed that the railroad clerk on the southbound platform of the station had been killed in a firebombing accident. She saw the smoke from the platform and was stuck inside the railroad car for some time. As a result of that, she was diagnosed with post dramatic stress disorder. Her doctor specified that she could not do any subway work, but could do clerical work. Not later than August 13, 1996, she requested a reassignment to a position that would not require her to work in the subway as an accommodation of her medical problems. Two days later, her employer designated her as “no work temporary,” and one month later she was terminated under a rule authorizing termination of an employee who had been unable to return to work for a year. After exhausting her administrative remedies, she sued. The employer defended on several grounds, including: 1) she received SSDI; 2) no reasonable accommodation was available because working in the subway was an essential function of her job; and 3) there was no nexus between the major life activity impaired and the accommodation requested. The District Court rejected the first two arguments but granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on the ground that there was no nexus between the major life activity impaired and the accommodation requested. Plaintiff appealed.

 

II

 

Court’s Reasoning That There Must Be a Causal Link between the Specific Condition Limiting a Major Life Activity in the Accommodation Required

 

  1. The court only addressed the issue of a causal connection and not the other two issues where the lower court denied the summary judgment motion.
  2. An employer discriminates against an employee with a disability only by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for the disability, which is the impairment of the major life activity.
  3. Plaintiff’s inability to work in the subway did not substantially limit any major life activity. She was fully able to work just not in the subway.
  4. While her inability to work in the subway was related to her insomnia because they both stemmed from the same traumatic incident and the PTSD, that origin alone does not mean that the non-disability impairment is entitled to an accommodation.
  5. The impairment for which plaintiff sought an accommodation did not flow directly from the disability itself. That is, she sought a workplace accommodation for a mental condition that does not flow directly from her insomnia.
  6. Plaintiff did not argue that she was unable to work in the subway because the work aggravated her insomnia. Instead, she argued that she could not work in the subway because she was terrified of being alone and closed in.
  7. Adverse effects of disabilities and adverse or side effects for medical treatment of disability arise because of the disability. However, other impairments not caused by disability need not be accommodated.
  8. Plaintiff’s insomnia and her fear of the subway are two mental conditions deriving from the same traumatic incident.
  9. In situations where it is not clear that a single particular medical condition is responsible for both disability and the lesser impairment, the plaintiff must show a causal connection between the specific condition impairing a major life activity and the accommodation.
  10. The ADA mandates reasonable accommodation of people with disabilities in order to put them on an even playing field with the nondisabled; it does not authorize a preference for disabled people generally. To hold otherwise, transforms the ADA from an act prohibiting discrimination into an act requiring treating people with disabilities better than others who are not disabled but have the same impairment for which accommodation is sought.
  11. The ADA does not require the accommodation of impairments that do not limit major life activities whenever the person with an impairment happens to also have a disability.
  12. To hold otherwise, would mean that an ADA plaintiff who was not otherwise impaired in a major life activity but suffered debilitating anxiety or stress from a particular job could get to a jury merely by alleging that the job causes insomnia, difficulty breathing, or some other set of disabling symptoms that can be characterized as a syndrome.

 

III

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. There was a concurring opinion in the case that seemed to misunderstand entirely the nature of disability and why a reasonable accommodation is requested.
  2. There was also a dissenting opinion that argued that a causal link between the specific condition limiting a major life activity and the accommodation existed in this case.
  3. Underlying the case is the question of when an employer has to reassign an employee that is no longer qualified for the job; a question where the circuit courts are currently split, as we discussed here.
  4. This case occurred long before the amendments to the ADA, which radically changed what is a major life activity.
  5. The amendments to the ADA also made clear that how the courts had interpreted substantial limitation was far too narrow. In light of the amendments, it shouldn’t be that difficult for a plaintiff attorney to properly allege a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
  6. The EEOC, 29 C.F.R. §1630.2(j)(ii), defines substantial limitation as a matter of being whether the person is substantially limited in a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.
  7. This case actually helps a plaintiff arguing for an animal to assist them in the workplace because the case talks about a reasonable accommodation for the disability. It isn’t talking about a reasonable accommodation relating to the essential functions of the job. Solid preventive law practice means linking the accommodation to the disability and not to the essential functions of the job.
  8. Plaintiff s would do well to make sure that the accommodation they are requesting relates to their disability. The case does give plaintiffs an argument that the critical question is how the disability relates to the accommodation and not how the accommodation relates to the essential functions of the job.
  9. We don’t know why the court did not address the first two issues. It is worth noting that the Cleveland case (SSDI can estop a reasonable accommodation request under some circumstances), that was decided by the Supreme Court was only four years old at the time of this decision. The Barnett decision (you do not have to reassign a person to a position if it means trumping seniority rights), was only one year old at the time.
  10. Working is still a major life activity and Sutton is still the operative standard. That said, with the amendments to the ADA, working should hardly ever be alleged as the major life activity, and it may even be legal malpractice to so allege absent no other alternative major life activity. That is, absent working it is now very difficult for a defendant to rebut that a physical or mental impairment does not substantially limit a major life activity, though on rare occasion it does happen.
  11. “Other impairment not caused by the disability,” is a strange turn of phrase looking at things in 2022 because a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Today, it difficult to think of a situation of an “other impairment not caused by the disability,” because the chances are very high that the “other impairment,” is associated with a disability of its own. I have the same concern for the court’s phrase, “lesser impairment.” The court’s very limited view of what a disability is may be a reflection of the Toyota Motor decision, which was one year old at the time Felix was decided.
  12. Toyota Motor, which held that to be substantially limited in performing manual tasks the person had to have an impairment that prevented or severely restricted the individual from performing such tasks, was overruled by the amendments to the ADA.
  13. Hard to understand how you could have today a situation where a person is not disabled but had the same impairment for which an accommodation is sought.
  14. A person can have more than one disability needing accommodations.
  15. I actually like this case in many respects even though much of its reasoning is outdated now due to the amendments to the ADA. A critical piece of this case is the accommodation focuses on the disability not on the essential function of the job. Also, it is a word to the wise to ensure that a plaintiff attorney makes clear how the accommodation relates to the disability. For the most part, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. Even so, a plaintiff attorney has to be conscious of making the link between the accommodation and the disability.

Today’s blog entry concerns the question of whether a person acting as a tester can ever have standing to pursue ADA claims. The case of today is Lauffer v. Looper, a published decision from the 10th Circuit decided on January 5, 2022, here. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; court’s reasoning that plaintiff lacks standing; and thoughts/takeaways. Considering how short the blog entry is, the reader will probably want to read the whole thing.

 

I

Facts

 

Plaintiff is a resident of Pascoe County Florida, uses a wheelchair, and requires accommodation due to her disability. In her complaint, she described herself as an advocate of the rights of similarly situated disabled persons and a tester for the purpose of asserting her civil rights in monitoring, sharing, and determining whether places of public accommodation and their websites are in compliance with the ADA. Defendant own the Elk Run Inn, a hotel in Craig, Colorado. Plaintiff alleges that their website did not identify accessible rooms, did not allow for booking of accessible rooms, and provided insufficient information as to whether the rooms at the hotel are accessible. While her complaint did allege an intention to revisit the website to see if the website had come into compliance with 28 C.F.R. §36.302(e), at no time did she allege an intent to use the website to book an accessible room for her actual use.

 

II

Court’s Reasoning That Plaintiff Lacks Standing

 

  1. In Spokeo v. Robbins, the United States Supreme Court said that Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation.
  2. In Trans Union, LLC v. Ramirez, the Supreme Court emphasized that Congress’s creation of a statutory prohibition or obligation and a cause of action does not relieve the courts of their responsibility to independently decide whether a plaintiff has suffered a concrete harm under Article III. That is, for standing purposes an important difference exists between a plaintiff’s statutory cause of action to sue a defendant over the defendant’s violation of federal law and a plaintiff’s suffering concrete harm because of the defendant’s violation of federal law. In other words, under Article III, an injury in law is not equivalent to an injury in fact.
  3. Article III grants federal courts the power to redress harms that defendants cause plaintiffs. It does not grant federal courts a freewheeling power to hold defendants accountable for legal infractions.
  4. Plaintiff conceded that she has no concrete plan to visit Craig, Colorado, or to book a room at the Elk Run Inn.
  5. Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation. The concrete injury must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.
  6. Plaintiff made no allegation that she was given false information based upon discrimination as is the case when it comes to testers under the Fair Housing Act.
  7. Status as a tester alone is insufficient to confer standing.
  8. Plaintiff did not allege that information was denied to her because of her disability nor could she because all individuals had access to the same information on the website. A lack of information is not the same thing as information grounded in misrepresentation and racial animus.
  9. Plaintiff identified no downstream consequences from failing to receive the required information. That is, plaintiff did not allege that she had any interest in using the information she obtained from the website beyond bringing this lawsuit. She has no plan to visit Craig, Colorado. She did not attempt to book a room at the defendant’s place of business and has no intent to do so.
  10. In a footnote, the court mentioned that the Fifth Circuit said that to allege an informational injury, plaintiff would need to allege at least that the information had some relevance to her. Even so, violation of a legal entitlement is not the same as an injury in fact.
  11. While it is true that the 10th Circuit has previously held that anyone who has suffered an invasion of a legal interest protected by title III may have standing regardless of his or her motivation in encountering that invasion, that same decision also emphasized that the general requirements of standing were not being displaced. In this case, plaintiff did not allege that she would encounter any accessibility barriers because she had no intention of attempting to access the Elk Run Inn itself.
  12. Testers must satisfy the constitutional requirements of Article III.
  13. Plaintiff’s status as a tester did not defeat standing, but nor does it automatically confer standing.
  14. Plaintiff did not allege that she was prevented from accessing the website because of her disability.

 

III

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. The decision is a published decision and so can be freely cited.
  2. Tester standing under this decision is sort of a thing but is also not sort of a thing. That is, being a tester by itself is insufficient. There has to be some misrepresentation involved or the tester actually has to demonstrate that they intend to show up at the physical space and take advantage of it. In theory, tester standing exists but not without more, which means that tester standing along the lines of the Fair Housing Act does not exist with respect to title III of the ADA, at least when it comes to the rules pertaining to accessibility of hotel rooms being advertised. A lack of information is simply not enough.
  3. A person could also allege that there are downstream consequences from failing to get the required information. However, that allegation without more isn’t enough either. In that situation, plaintiff would have to at least allege an intent to visit the locale, or to book a room at the defendant’s place of business.
  4. Legal entitlement is not the same as an injury in fact.
  5. Importantly, this is not a case where the plaintiff said that the website itself was inaccessible due to her disability.
  6. I could see the principles of this case being applied to Article III standing issues generally, such as in architectural barrier cases.
  7. On the plaintiff side, a plaintiff needs to be specific about how the statutory harm makes it a personal problem for that individual. It certainly does appear that courts are getting very frustrated with serial plaintiffs and will start using standing principles, such as the ones laid out here, to cut down on their filings. I have said for quite a long time that a hybrid fact-noticed based pleadings approach is the best way to go.
  8. This decision is not as clearly applicable to an inaccessible website situation because in that situation, a plaintiff cannot meaningfully access the website in the first place.
  9. Considering the current configuration of the Supreme Court, I would expect this decision to be affirmed if this case were appealed to the Supreme Court by at least a 6-3 margin and probably larger.

Happy new year everyone! Today’s blog entry deals with the question of what happens when a state passes all kinds of laws to cut down on serial plaintiffs who then flood the federal courts, which do not have the same restrictions, with similar cases. The case of the day is Arroyo v. Rosas, here. A decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that on December 10, 2021. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: background; facts; court’s reasoning that the lower court should not have denied supplemental jurisdiction; court’s reasoning that the lower court should not have denied supplemental jurisdiction BUT; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to concentrate on any or all of the categories.

 

I

Background

 

  1. The California antidiscrimination law, the Unruh Act, contains a specific provision stating that a violation of the right of any individual under the ADA is also a violation of the California law. Unlike the ADA, the Unruh Act allows for a person to recover actual damages as well as any amount that may be determined by a jury up to a maximum of three times the amount of actual damages but in no case less than $4000.
  2. In 2012, the California legislature in an effort to restrict the number of cases being filed by serial plaintiffs instituted several reforms, including: 1) prohibiting upfront requests for money and prelitigation demand letters sent by attorney to business owners; 2) imposing heightened pleading requirements on construction related accessibility claims; and 3) requiring that any such complaint be verified by the plaintiff.
  3. In 2015, the California legislature imposed additional requirements on a high-frequency litigant, including: 1) the plaintiff must disclose he or she is a high-frequency litigant; 2) the plaintiff must disclose how many complaints he or she has filed in the prior 12 months; 3) the plaintiff must state the reason he or she was in the geographic area of the defendant’s business; and 4) the plaintiff must state why he or she desired to access the defendant’s business. A high-frequency litigant is someone defined as a plaintiff who has filed 10 or more complaints alleging a construction related accessibility violation within the 12 month period immediately preceding the filing of the current complaint alleging a construction related accessibility violation. Finally, the California legislature imposed a $1000 additional filing fee over and above the ordinary civil filing fees for each new case filed by a plaintiff who is a high-frequency litigant.
  4. As a result of the California legislation, serial plaintiffs moved their cases to the federal courts in a big way. By the first six months of 2019, 24% of civil cases filed in the central district of California where ADA construction related accessibility claims that also alleged violations of the Unruh Act. By 2019, the number of state complaints had dropped so dramatically that the ratio of federal to state complaints was 10 to 1 (311 state complaint versus 3211 federal complaints).

 

II

Facts

 

  1. The plaintiff filed the action in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on July 23, 2018. Within the preceding 12 months, he had filed at least 38 cases thereby classifying him as a high-frequency litigant had he filed the case in California state courts.
  2. After a year from filing the action, plaintiff moved for summary judgment. Defendant proceeded pro se and unsuccessfully sought an extension of time to file her opposition to the summary judgment motion. Defendant thereafter failed to file any response by the court’s deadline. So, in August 2019, District Court granted plaintiff’s summary judgment on the ADA claim but declined jurisdiction over the state law claim. Plaintiff appealed the court’s refusing to take on the state law claim after granting summary judgment.

 

III

Court’s Reasoning That the Lower Court Should Not Have Denied Supplemental Jurisdiction

 

  1. The only question is whether exceptional circumstances under 28 U.S.C. §1367(c)(4) exists.
  2. Deciding whether exceptional circumstances exist involves the lower court: 1) articulating why the circumstances of the case are exceptional; and 2) considering what best serves the principles of economy, convenience, fairness, and comity underlying the pendent jurisdiction doctrine.
  3. The recent combination of several California law rule changes combined with how the ADA goes about determining whether architectural barriers are discriminatory clearly threatens to have a significant adverse impact on federal-state comity as now federal court is very attractive for filing claims and state court is not, particularly for serial litigants.
  4. Due to the shift of cases to the federal courts, California is simply unable to accomplish the legislature’s goal of simultaneously providing damages relief for ADA violations while limiting the financial burdens California businesses face for claims of statutory damages under the Unruh Act. In short, the procedural structures of California have now been rendered largely toothless.
  5. Retention of supplemental jurisdiction over ADA-based Unruh Act claims threatens to substantially thwart California’s carefully crafted reforms and to deprive the state courts of their critical role in effectuating the policies underlying those reforms.

 

IV

Court’s Reasoning That the Lower Court Should Not Have Denied Supplemental Jurisdiction

BUT

 

  1. Given the very late stage District Court declined supplemental jurisdiction in this case, the District Court should have retained jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s Unruh Act claim and therefore, abused its discretion in dismissing that claim.
  2. From the perspective of judicial economy and convenience, it makes no sense to decline jurisdiction as the District Court did over a pendent state law claim already decided by the court. Under the plain language of the Unruh Act, a violation of the ADA is automatically, without more, a violation of the Unruh Act. Accordingly, the District Court’s ADA ruling already established that the defendant violated the Unruh Act, and it identified the specific respects in which the defendant did so.
  3. The District Court waited too late in the litigation process to invoke the interest of comity. If the District Court had declined supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff’s Unruh Act claim at the outset of litigation, it might then still have been possible to further California’s interest in channeling Unruh Act damages claim through the imposition of heightened pleading requirements and a substantial upfront filing fee. However, once the District Court granted summary judgment upholding the merits of plaintiff’s ADA claim and by implication its Unruh Act claim, it was no longer possible to satisfy the interests underlying California’s various devices for prescreening of Unruh Act claims. Having already granted summary judgment in plaintiff’s favor, the District Court by that point had identified the specific access barrier barriers the individual encountered, the way in which the barrier denied the individual equal user access, and the particular date in which the claimant encountered the specific access barrier.
  4. When the court granted summary judgment, it knew the plaintiff was a high-frequency litigant. While the lower court would not have been aware of that necessarily at the beginning of the litigation, the defendant could have explored those points in discovery.
  5. There is no point in exploring the high-frequency of the litigant when the merits of the claim already have been litigated and resolved. At that point, the only thing accomplished by sending the Unruh Act claim back to state court, other than burdening the state court with pointless work, would be to impose a fee on the plaintiff for the $1000 special filing fee for high-frequency litigants as well as the other standard filing fees.
  6. There is no sense in which the district court’s dismissal can be said to further the interest of ensuring federal courts are not burdened with combined ADA/Unruh Act cases that would not survive California’s upfront screening mechanism. After all, any burden from this particular litigation has already occurred, and all that remains is a relatively ministerial task of entering judgment on the Unruh Act claim. In short, it is simply too late to undo the now sunk costs already incurred by litigating this matter to its inevitable conclusion.

 

IV

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. Not all states have state antidiscrimination laws. For example, Georgia, with rare exceptions, doesn’t. If you are in a state with an antidiscrimination law containing heightened pleading requirements v. the ADA, this case is something you very much want to keep in mind.
  2. Missing court deadlines is never a good idea.
  3. Check your state law to see just how broad the additional pleading requirements are on a serial litigant. For example, here we are only talking about architectural barriers and not barriers that exist when someone tries to access an Internet site.
  4. Moral of the story is that every lawyer on the defense side in California, or in a state with similar rules, defending an architectural barriers case needs to immediately move to remand the Unruh Act claim to state court when it is filed in federal court. I realize that is a bit of a reversal because it is generally defendants prefer to be in federal court and not plaintiffs. You might even try removing the entire case back to state court and have the state take the ADA claim with supplemental jurisdiction. After all, state courts do decide ADA claims with some frequency, with the variability of that depending upon the jurisdiction.
  5. Part of the problem is that when it comes to architectural barriers, the ADA is a strict liability statute if the applicable Americans with Disabilities Act Architectural Guidelines, ADAAG, is not complied with. This is an issue that my colleague, Richard Hunt, has written about with great frequency in his blog, access defense, which is in my blogroll.
  6. Since the ADA is a strict liability statute when it comes to the applicable ADAAG guidelines, an argument can be created that a defense attorney, in California or in a similar state, who fails to file early in the litigation a motion to remand a serial litigant architectural barrier claim might even be committing legal malpractice (see this blog entry for a discussion of legal malpractice involving ADA matters).

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and is having a happy holiday season. Today’s blog entry comes from the Supreme Court of Georgia in a case decided November 23, 2021. It has absolutely nothing to do with the ADA per se but then again it very much does. The case goes to the question of just how far the doctrine of judicial immunity goes. As I have mentioned previously, it isn’t unusual for me at all to get calls saying that a judge is refusing to accommodate a litigant with a disability. Also, it is not unusual for me to see situations where judicial immunity is claimed solely because it is the judge that decides on the reasonable accommodation/modification request rather than clerical staff. This case, Spann v. Davis, here, deals with both of those questions even if it is not a matter of disability discrimination. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: procedural history; issues presented; short answer; court’s reasoning that lower court erred in dismissing sua sponte, on its own motion, the case because of quasi-judicial/judicial immunity; quasi-judicial/judicial immunity is an affirmative defense but is nonwaivable; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to read any or all of the categories.

 

I

Procedural History

 

Plaintiff filed suit against two people who were administrators of the City of Atlanta Municipal Court alleging that she was wrongfully arrested and detained as a result of the clerk’s failure to withdraw a failure to appear warrant after it was canceled by the Municipal Court. The clerks raised sovereign immunity and official immunity as defenses in a motion to dismiss, but the trial court on its own motion raised and granted the motion based on quasi-judicial immunity with no prior notice to the parties.

 

II

Issues Presented

 

  1. Did the Court of Appeals err in concluding that the trial court was correct to rule on its own motion on the issue of quasi-judicial immunity even though the defendant did not raise quasi-judicial immunity in the motion to dismiss or in its answer?
  2. Did the clerks waive the defense of quasi-judicial immunity by failing to raise it in their initial pleading or by motion?

 

III

Short Answer

 

  1. Yes
  2. No

 

IV

Court’s Reasoning That the Lower Court Erred in Ruling on Quasi-Judicial Immunity on Its Own Motion

 

  1. In a footnote, the court said that judicial immunity shields judicial officers from liability in civil actions based on acts performed in their judicial capacity that are not undertaken in the complete absence of all jurisdiction. This broad immunity, normally applies to judges, also applies to officers appointed by the court if their role is simply an extension of the court.
  2. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the clerk’s failure to report the cancellation of the warrant was a judicial and not a ministerial function because the warrant is always issued by a judge.
  3. The Georgia Supreme Court in a footnote expressed its doubt over whether a trial court can on its own behalf dismiss on the basis of affirmative defenses other than failure to state a claim, but it was not necessary for the Georgia Supreme Court to answer that question with respect to this case.
  4. The Georgia Court of Appeals has held that a trial court lacks authority to assert on behalf of a party affirmative defenses that can be waived.
  5. A judgment dismissing a matter based on an affirmative defense that has not been raised is particularly problematic because a party seeking protection from suit on the basis of immunity bears the burden of establishing that he or she is entitled to that protection.
  6. The defense of judicial immunity or quasi-judicial immunity is a fact specific inquiry turning on the nature and function of the action taken by the party asserting the defense rather than the party’s status.
  7. Since the clerks did not assert quasi-judicial immunity and the responsive pleading, such that the allegations of the pleading did not reveal on their face that they were entitled to immunity as a matter of law, and the clerk did not move to dismiss on that basis, the trial court erred in dismissing on its own behalf plaintiff’s claims.

 

V

Court’s Reasoning That the Clerk Did Not Waive the Defense of Quasi-Judicial Immunity by Failing to Raise It in Their Initial Pleading or by Motion.

 

  1. OCGA §9-11-12(b) lists seven defenses that must be raised to a claim for relief in any pleading.
  2. OCGA §9-11-8(b) requires a party to state in short and plain terms any defenses to each claim asserted.
  3. Of the seven enumerated defenses in OCGA §9-11-12, four of them (lack of jurisdiction over the person, improper venue, insufficiency of process, and insufficiency of service of process), may be waived under certain circumstances.
  4. In a footnote, the Georgia Supreme Court notes that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure include a catchall introductory provision covering all possible affirmative defenses, which is not the case with respect to Georgia.
  5. Quasi-judicial immunity is not one of those defenses enumerated in OCGA §9-11-12(h)(1) as being waived if not included in a responsive pleading as originally filed.
  6. Quasi-judicial immunity is not among the seven defenses that the OCGA permits to be raised by motion rather than in responsive pleading. Therefore, the clerk’s failure to include quasi-judicial immunity in their motion does not amount to a waiver of that defense.
  7. Since a trial court retains authority over a case regardless of whether judicial or quasi-judicial immunity applies, the assertion of quasi-judicial immunity is an affirmative defense and not an issue divesting the court of subject matter jurisdiction.

 

VI

Justice McMillan Concurring Opinion

 

  1. With respect to judicial immunity, its scope includes: 1) protecting judges from being sued and from being held civilly liable as a result of carrying out their judicial duties; 2) a judge will be denied the absolute protection of judicial immunity when committing an act that is not judicial in nature or when acting in the complete absence of all jurisdiction; and 3) the determinative issue is whether the court function complained of was nonjudicial.
  2. The relevant inquiry is the nature and function of the act and not the act itself. In other words, you look to the particular act’s relation to a general function normally performed by a judge.
  3. The Georgia Supreme Court previously went astray when it looked to the statute as being essentially dispositive to determine the judicial function instead of it being just a factor in the analysis. The Georgia Supreme Court then erroneously extended the concept that a statute can define a judicial function to say that reporting the disposition of a matter to another government agency a judicial function generally even apparently in the absence of a statute. With respect to the federal cases that decision relied upon, none of those cases addressed the issue of a judicial function versus a clerk’s function.

 

VII

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. Judicial immunity and quasi-judicial immunity are affirmative defenses. Also, these particular affirmative defenses do not get waived in Georgia. At the federal level, for the reasons noted by the Georgia Supreme Court, the answer might be different as a result of the difference in the language between the federal rules and the Georgia rules.
  2. The judicial immunity determination is a fact specific inquiry.
  3. The Georgia Supreme Court disfavors a judge dismissing a matter on judicial immunity or quasi-judicial immunity on its own motion. While the failure to raise the affirmative defense of quasi-judicial immunity and judicial immunity is not waivable in Georgia, it is still up to the parties to raise the defense.
  4. The concurring opinion is something very valuable for attorneys representing persons with disabilities in any jurisdiction with respect to challenging a judge’s failure to accommodate an individual with a disability. The critical question is the nature and function of the act and not the act itself. Further, what a statute says isn’t dispositive either. All kinds of people decide on what is a reasonable modification/accommodation who are not judges. Also, what a judge does is independent of the accommodation/modification decision. That is, a judge is responsible for deciding on a winner or loser and/or helping a jury get to that point. The modification/accommodation piece of it is not a judicial function even if it might affect the ultimate result. Thus, a strong argument exists that determining the outcome of the reasonable modification/accommodation request is not a judicial function and therefore, not a judicial act.
  5. Whether this decision will lead to more people challenging a judge failure to accommodate/modify their practices, policies, and procedures in order to accommodate a person with a disability remains to be seen. In my experience, I have seen that there can be serious professional risks to an attorney for taking on such cases. Taking on a court system or an individual judge can be done, but it has to be done very carefully, such as we discussed here.

Before turning to today’s blog entry, I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, a happy holiday season, and a happy new year. Also, be safe.

 

Today’s blog entry is really short. Recently, I came across a legal blog entry suggesting that the Supreme Court had clarified the doctrine of qualified immunity in a per curiam decision, City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma v. Bond decided on October 18, 2021, here. Qualified immunity does come up from time to time in our blog, such as here, and I thought I would give the case a read. When I read the case, I don’t think the Supreme Court clarified much of anything at all when it comes to qualified immunity. I have divided the blog entry into the categories of what the Supreme Court said and thoughts takeaways. However, the blog entry is so short that you are going to want to read the whole thing. In fact, the blog entry probably will not make any sense if you don’t read the whole thing.

 

I

What the Supreme Court Said:

“The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officers from civil liability so long as their conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U. S. 223, 231 (2009). As we have explained, qualified immunity protects “`all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 583 U. S. ___, ___-___ (2018) (slip op., at 13-14) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U. S. 335, 341 (1986)).

We have repeatedly told courts not to define clearly established law at too high a level of generality. See, e.g.Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U. S. 731, 742 (2011). It is not enough that a rule be suggested by then-existing precedent; the “rule’s contours must be so well defined that it is `clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.'” Wesby, 583 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 14) (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S. 194, 202 (2001)). Such specificity is “especially important in the Fourth Amendment context,” where it is “sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.” Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U. S. 7, 12 (2015) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted).”

On the one hand, the Supreme Court says that officers are protected from civil liability so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Notice the phrase, “reasonable person.” However, the Supreme Court then goes on to say that you still get the benefit of qualified immunity so long as you are not, “plainly incompetent.” In the next paragraph, the court says that the question is whether the contours were so well defined that it was clear to a reasonable officer that his or her conduct was unlawful in the situation he or she confronted.

II

Thoughts/Takeaways

  1. Qualified immunity is a judicial doctrine. I know lots of people have been working on the issue, including members of the Federal Bar Association, among others.
  2. Qualified immunity does not come up a lot with respect to the ADA because the general rule is that there is no individual liability when it comes to ADA violations for title I, title II, or title III. There is one exception in the 11th Circuit for employees of public entities who retaliate against another individual. See Shotz v. City of Plantation, Florida. That particular case turns on the use of the word person in 42 U.S.C. §12203(a). Interestingly enough, that term does not appear in 42 U.S.C. §12203(b), the interference section. So, it is entirely possible that in the 11th Circuit individual liability for retaliation is in play but is not in play for interference claims. That distinction matters because it is not unusual at all to see police officers interfere with the rights of people with disabilities, such as, by way of example, in the case of the police getting the law wrong when it comes to a person with a service animal wanting to access a place of public accommodation.
  3. Reasonable officer, reasonable person, and plainly incompetent are to my mind different standards. For example, in a prior blog entry, here, we talked about how a case that has been used to train police officers for excessive force is a fact pattern that probably violates the ADA. Even so, officers continue to get trained using that case. A reader of my blog or a police force trained by me would know that Graham v. Connor is not the one you should be looking at if you want to comply with the ADA. On the other hand, would an officer be plainly incompetent to rely on the case that has been used for years for training with respect to excessive force cases? I am not sure they would be.
  4. The opinion also suggests that how close the match needs to be between a pre-existing case and the conduct at issue may vary depending upon context. For example, there may have to be a very close match with respect to the fourth amendment but perhaps less so with respect to other causes of action.
  5. In short, I don’t see how this case clarifies qualified immunity much at all. Things continue to be very muddled even after this decision.

Happy holidays and happy new year!!!!!!

Today’s blog entry focuses on the EEOC update pertaining to what you should know about Covid-19 that came down on December 14, 2021. The only section that has been added is §N. One wonders what will happen when they run out of alphabet letters, AA perhaps? As far as the guidance goes, some of it is straightforward and much of it, to my mind anyway, is unnecessarily confusing. No doubt, every labor and employment law blogger will be blogging on this, but I wanted to add my own perspective. So, here goes. As what I have done in the past with this particular guidance, I’ve listed the guidance verbatim and then add my comments at the applicable point. So, the blog entry is not divided into any categories per se, and you will probably need to read the whole thing.

N. COVID-19 and the Definition of “Disability” Under the ADA/Rehabilitation Act

Employees and employers alike have asked when COVID-19 is a “disability” under Title I of the ADA, which includes reasonable accommodation and nondiscrimination requirements in the employment context. These questions and answers clarify circumstances in which COVID-19 may or may not cause effects sufficient to meet the definition of “actual” or “record of” a disability for various purposes under Title I, as well as section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, both of which are enforced by the EEOC. Other topics covered in this section include disabilities arising from conditions that were caused or worsened by COVID-19. This section also addresses the ADA’s “regarded as” definition of disability with respect to COVID-19.

On July 26, 2021, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued “Guidance on ‘Long COVID’ as a Disability Under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557” (DOJ/HHS Guidance). The CDC uses the terms “long COVID,” “post-COVID,” “long-haul COVID,” “post-acute COVID-19,” “long-term effects of COVID,” or “chronic COVID” to describe various post-COVID conditions, where individuals experience new, returning, or ongoing health problems four or more weeks after being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. The DOJ/HHS Guidance focuses solely on long COVID in the context of Titles II and III of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. These EEOC questions and answers focus more broadly on COVID-19 and do so in the context of Title I of the ADA and section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, which cover employment. This discussion does not pertain to other contexts, such as eligibility determinations for federal benefit programs.

N.1. How does the ADA define disability, and how does the definition apply to COVID-19? (12/14/21)

The ADA’s three-part definition of disability applies to COVID-19 in the same way it applies to any other medical condition. A person can be an individual with a “disability” for purposes of the ADA in one of three ways:

  • “Actual” Disability: The person has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or learning, or operation of a major bodily function);
  • “Record of” a Disability: The person has a history or “record of” an actual disability (such as cancer that is in remission); or
  • “Regarded as” an Individual with a Disability: The person is subject to an adverse action because of an individual’s impairment or an impairment the employer believes the individual has, whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity, unless the impairment is objectively both transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor.

The definition of disability is construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted by the law. Nonetheless, not every impairment will constitute a disability under the ADA. The ADA uses a case-by-case approach to determine if an applicant or employee meets any one of the three above definitions of “disability.”

Response: It is absolutely true that not every impairment will constitute a disability under the ADA. However, with the amendments to the ADA, those situations are going to be very unusual.

COVID-19 and the ADA

“Actual” Disability

N.2. When is COVID-19 an actual disability under the ADA? (12/14/21)

Applying the ADA rules stated in N.1. and depending on the specific facts involved in an individual employee’s condition, a person with COVID-19 has an actual disability if the person’s medical condition or any of its symptoms is a “physical or mental” impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” An individualized assessment is necessary to determine whether the effects of a person’s COVID-19 substantially limit a major life activity. This will always be a case-by-case determination that applies existing legal standards to the facts of a particular individual’s circumstances. A person infected with the virus causing COVID-19 who is asymptomatic or a person whose COVID-19 results in mild symptoms similar to those of the common cold or flu that resolve in a matter of weeks—with no other consequences—will not have an actual disability within the meaning of the ADA. However, depending on the specific facts involved in a particular employee’s medical condition, an individual with COVID-19 might have an actual disability, as illustrated below.

Response: I find this statement: “A person infected with the virus causing COVID-19 who is asymptomatic or a person whose COVID-19 results in mild symptoms similar to those of the common cold or flu that resolve in a matter of weeks—with no other consequences—will not have an actual disability within the meaning of the ADA,” very confusing. I suppose mild symptoms similar to those of the common cold or flu is self-evident. What does a matter of weeks mean? What does, “-with no other consequences-“ mean? As a matter of preventive law, you are going to be much better trying to figure out whether the physical or mental impairment is both transitory and minor. The language from the EEOC here is just too confusing.

Physical or Mental Impairment: Under the ADA, a physical impairment includes any physiological disorder or condition affecting one or more body systems. A mental impairment includes any mental or psychological disorder. COVID-19 is a physiological condition affecting one or more body systems. As a result, it is a “physical or mental impairment” under the ADA.

Response: The EEOC is saying here and in the major life activities §, immediately below, that Covid-19 is undoubtedly a physical or mental impairment under the ADA.

Major Life Activities: “Major life activities” include both major bodily functions, such as respiratory, lung, or heart function, and major activities in which someone engages, such as walking or concentrating. COVID-19 may affect major bodily functions, such as functions of the immune system, special sense organs (such as for smell and taste), digestive, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, or cardiovascular functions, or the operation of an individual organ. In some instances, COVID-19 also may affect other major life activities, such as caring for oneself, eating, walking, breathing, concentrating, thinking, or interacting with others. An impairment need only substantially limit one major bodily function or other major life activity to be substantially limiting. However, limitations in more than one major life activity may combine to meet the standard.

Substantially Limiting: “Substantially limits” is construed broadly and should not demand extensive analysis. COVID-19 need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, a person from performing a major life activity to be considered substantially limiting under Title I of the ADA.

The limitations from COVID-19 do not necessarily have to last any particular length of time to be substantially limiting. They also need not be long-term. For example, in discussing a hypothetical physical impairment resulting in a 20-pound lifting restriction that lasts or is expected to last several months, the EEOC has said that such an impairment is substantially limiting. App. to 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ix). By contrast, “[i]mpairments that last only for a short period of time are typically not covered, although they may be covered if sufficiently severe.” Id.

Response: Straightforward

Mitigating Measures: Whether COVID-19 substantially limits a major life activity is determined based on how limited the individual would have been without the benefit of any mitigating measures–i.e., any medical treatment received or other step used to lessen or prevent symptoms or other negative effects of an impairment. At the same time, in determining whether COVID-19 substantially limits a major life activity, any negative side effects of a mitigating measure are taken into account.

Some examples of mitigating measures for COVID-19 include medication or medical devices or treatments, such as antiviral drugs, supplemental oxygen, inhaled steroids and other asthma-related medicines, breathing exercises and respiratory therapy, physical or occupational therapy, or other steps to address complications of COVID-19.

Episodic Conditions: Even if the symptoms related to COVID-19 come and go, COVID-19 is an actual disability if it substantially limits a major life activity when active.

Response: This is terribly confusing. It is easy to figure out whether a person has a physical or mental impairment if they have a hearing loss and wear hearing aids. Much less so with Covid-19. How do you actually know what the baseline is with untreated Covid-19? I get what the EEOC is doing. That is, they are just stating what the law is, mitigating measures are not factored into whether you have a disability under the ADA, but in that situation of a Covid-19 it doesn’t apply very well. That said, focus on whether a physical or mental impairment exists that substantially limits a major life activity (is the person substantially limited in a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population, 29 C.F.R. §1630.2(j)(ii)). An excellent preventive law approach for whether a temporary physical or mental impairment is substantially limiting, as mentioned above, is also to ask whether the physical or mental impairment is both transitory and minor.

 

N.3. Is COVID-19 always an actual disability under the ADA? (12/14/21)

No. Determining whether a specific employee’s COVID-19 is an actual disability always requires an individualized assessment, and such assessments cannot be made categorically. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2 for further information on the ADA’s requirements relating to individualized assessment.

N.4. What are some examples of ways in which an individual with COVID-19 might or might not be substantially limited in a major life activity? (12/14/21)

As noted above, while COVID-19 may substantially limit a major life activity in some circumstances, someone infected with the virus causing COVID-19 who is asymptomatic or a person whose COVID-19 results in mild symptoms similar to the common cold or flu that resolve in a matter of weeks—with no other consequences—will not be substantially limited in a major life activity for purposes of the ADA. Based on an individualized assessment in each instance, examples of fact patterns include:

Examples of Individuals with an Impairment that Substantially Limits a Major Life Activity:

  • An individual diagnosed with COVID-19 who experiences ongoing but intermittent multiple-day headaches, dizziness, brain fog, and difficulty remembering or concentrating, which the employee’s doctor attributes to the virus, is substantially limited in neurological and brain function, concentrating, and/or thinking, among other major life activities.

Response: Straightforward.

  • An individual diagnosed with COVID-19 who initially receives supplemental oxygen for breathing difficulties and has shortness of breath, associated fatigue, and other virus-related effects that last, or are expected to last, for several months, is substantially limited in respiratory function, and possibly major life activities involving exertion, such as walking.

Response: What does several months mean? Again, the preventive law approach for figuring out whether a temporary physical or mental impairment is substantially limiting, mentioned above, is probably the best way to go.

  • An individual who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 experiences heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and related effects due to the virus that last, or are expected to last, for several months. The individual is substantially limited in cardiovascular function and circulatory function, among others.

Response: What does several months mean? Again, the preventive law approach, mentioned above, is probably the best way to go

  • An individual diagnosed with “long COVID,” who experiences COVID-19-related intestinal pain, vomiting, and nausea that linger for many months, even if intermittently, is substantially limited in gastrointestinal function, among other major life activities, and therefore has an actual disability under the ADA. For other examples of when “long COVID” can be a substantially limiting impairment, see the DOJ/HHS Guidance.

Response: A couple of points here. First, the EEOC specifically references the DOJ HHS guidance. Second, we discussed that guidance here. Third, long-haul Covid-19 is undoubtedly a disability under the ADA in many cases, if not all.

Examples of Individuals with an Impairment that Does Not Substantially Limit a Major Life Activity:

  • An individual who is diagnosed with COVID-19 who experiences congestion, sore throat, fever, headaches, and/or gastrointestinal discomfort, which resolve within several weeks, but experiences no further symptoms or effects, is not substantially limited in a major bodily function or other major life activity, and therefore does not have an actual disability under the ADA. This is so even though this person is subject to CDC guidance for isolation during the period of infectiousness.

Response: What does “resolve within several weeks,” mean? Again, see the preventive law approach mentioned above.

  • An individual who is infected with the virus causing COVID-19 but is asymptomatic—that is, does not experience any symptoms or effects—is not substantially limited in a major bodily function or other major life activity, and therefore does not have an actual disability under the ADA. This is the case even though this person is still subject to CDC guidance for isolation during the period of infectiousness.

Response: A bit confusing but straightforward when analyzed.

As noted above, even if the symptoms of COVID-19 occur intermittently, they will be deemed to substantially limit a major life activity if they are substantially limiting when active, based on an individualized assessment.

“Record of” Disability

N.5. Can a person who has or had COVID-19 be an individual with a “record of” a disability? (12/14/21)

Yes, depending on the facts. A person who has or had COVID-19 can be an individual with a “record of” a disability if the person has “a history of, or has been misclassified as having,” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(k)(2) , an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, based on an individualized assessment.

Response: Straightforward

“Regarded As” Disability

N.6. Can a person be “regarded as” an individual with a disability if the person has COVID-19 or the person’s employer mistakenly believes the person has COVID-19? (12/14/21)

Yes, depending on the facts. A person is “regarded as” an individual with a disability if the person is subjected to an adverse action (e.g., being fired, not hired, or harassed) because the person has an impairment, such as COVID-19, or the employer mistakenly believes the person has such an impairment, unless the actual or perceived impairment is objectively both transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor. For this definition of disability, whether the actual or perceived impairment substantially limits or is perceived to substantially limit a major life activity is irrelevant.

Response: Straightforward

N.7. What are some examples of an employer regarding a person with COVID-19 as an individual with a disability? (12/14/21)

The situations in which an employer might “regard” an applicant or employee with COVID-19 as an individual with a disability are varied. Some examples include:

  • An employer would regard an employee as having a disability if the employer fires the individual because the employee had symptoms of COVID-19, which, although minor, lasted or were expected to last more than six months. The employer could not show that the impairment was both transitory and minor.
  • An employer would regard an employee as having a disability if the employer fires the individual for having COVID-19, and the COVID-19, although lasting or expected to last less than six months, caused non-minor symptoms. In these circumstances, the employer could not show that the impairment was both transitory and minor.

Response: All these examples are doing is illustrating how for the regarded as exception to apply, the physical or mental impairment must be both transitory AND minor.

N.8. If an employer regards a person as having a disability, for example by taking an adverse action because the person has COVID-19 that is not both transitory and minor, does that automatically mean the employer has discriminated for purposes of the ADA? (12/14/21)

No. It is possible that an employer may not have engaged in unlawful discrimination under the ADA even if the employer took an adverse action based on an impairment. For example, an individual still needs to be qualified for the job held or desired. Additionally, in some instances, an employer may have a defense to an action taken on the basis of the impairment. For example, the ADA’s “direct threat” defense could permit an employer to require an employee with COVID-19 or its symptoms to refrain from physically entering the workplace during the CDC-recommended period of isolation, due to the significant risk of substantial harm to the health of others. See WYSK Question A.8. Of course, an employer risks violating the ADA if it relies on myths, fears, or stereotypes about a condition to disallow the employee’s return to work once the employee is no longer infectious and, therefore, medically able to return without posing a direct threat to others.

Response: The parenthetical information in N8, talking about adverse action, makes that paragraph extremely confusing. The answer is a straightforward application of the ADA.

Other Conditions Caused or Worsened by COVID-19 and the ADA

N.9. Can a condition caused or worsened by COVID-19 be a disability under the ADA? (12/14/21)

Yes. In some cases, regardless of whether an individual’s initial case of COVID-19 itself constitutes an actual disability, an individual’s COVID-19 may end up causing impairments that are themselves disabilities under the ADA. For example:

  • An individual who had COVID-19 develops heart inflammation. This inflammation itself may be an impairment that substantially limits a major bodily function, such as the circulatory function, or other major life activity, such as lifting.
  • During the course of COVID-19, an individual suffers an acute ischemic stroke. Due to the stroke, the individual may be substantially limited in neurological and brain (or cerebrovascular) function.
  • After an individual’s COVID-19 resolves, the individual develops diabetes attributed to the COVID-19. This individual should easily be found to be substantially limited in the major life activity of endocrine function. See Diabetes in the Workplace and the ADA for more information.

In some cases, an individual’s COVID-19 may also worsen the individual’s pre-existing condition that was not previously substantially limiting, making that impairment now substantially limiting. For example:

  • An individual initially has a heart condition that is not substantially limiting. The individual is infected with COVID-19. The COVID-19 worsens the person’s heart condition so that the condition now substantially limits the person’s circulatory function.

Response: Straightforward

Definition of Disability and Requests for Reasonable Accommodation

N.10. Does an individual have to establish coverage under a particular definition of disability to be eligible for a reasonable accommodation? (12/14/21)

Yes. Individuals must meet either the “actual” or “record of” definitions of disability to be eligible for a reasonable accommodation. Individuals who only meet the “regarded as” definition are not entitled to receive reasonable accommodation.

Response: Straightforward application of the ADA.

Of course, coverage under the “actual” or “record of” definitions does not, alone, entitle a person to a reasonable accommodation. Individuals are not entitled to an accommodation unless their disability requires it, and an employer is not obligated to provide an accommodation that would pose an undue hardship. See WYSK Section D, and Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA for more information.

Response: Under title I of the ADA, a qualified person with a disability is a person who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations is anything that does not constitute an undue hardship. An undue hardship can either be financial or logistical. With respect to financial, the entire resources of the entity are going to be looked at. Also, most accommodations do not cost a lot of money to begin with. So, proving a financial undue hardship will be very difficult. With respect to logistical, the best way to think of it is in terms of title II and title III concepts of fundamental alteration to the nature of the business.

N.11. When an employee requests a reasonable accommodation related to COVID-19 under the ADA, may the employer request supporting medical documentation before granting the request? (12/14/21)

Yes. As with employment accommodation requests under the ADA for any other potential disability, when the disability or need for accommodation is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask the employee to provide reasonable documentation about disability and/or need for reasonable accommodation. Often, the only information needed will be the individual’s diagnosis and any restrictions or limitations. The employer also may ask about whether alternative accommodations would be effective in meeting the disability-related needs of the individual. See WYSK Questions D.5. and D.6. for more information.

The employer may either ask the employee to obtain the requested information or request that the employee sign a limited release allowing the employer to contact the employee’s health care provider directly. If the employee does not cooperate in providing the requested reasonable supporting medical information, the employer can lawfully deny the accommodation request.

Response: The key here is that any information sought must be narrowly focused on the disability and/or the need for reasonable accommodation. Meeting that standard in most cases will not be difficult. The moral of the story for employers is don’t go on a fishing expedition. Keep any inquiries narrowly focused to assessing the disability and what reasonable accommodations might work for that person to do the essential functions of the job.

N.12. May an employer voluntarily provide accommodations requested by an applicant or employee due to COVID-19, even if not required to do so under the ADA? (12/14/21)

Yes. Employers may choose to provide accommodations beyond what the ADA mandates. Of course, employers must provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, absent undue hardship, if the applicant or employee meets the definition of disability, requires an accommodation for the disability, and is qualified for the job with the accommodation. Accommodations might consist of schedule changes, physical modifications to the workplace, telework, or special or modified equipment. See, e.g., WYSK Section D or U.S. Department of Labor Blog, Workers with Long COVID-19: You May Be Entitled to Workplace Accommodations for more information.

Response: Telework is specifically mentioned here as a reasonable accommodation. With respect to how do you determine whether attendance is an essential function of the job, this blog entry is my go to.

Applicability of Definition of Disability

N.13. If an employer subjected an applicant or employee to an adverse action, and the applicant or employee is covered under any one of the three ADA definitions of disability, does that mean the employer violated the ADA? (12/14/21)

No. Having a disability, alone, does not mean an individual was subjected to an unlawful employment action under the ADA.

For example, the fact that an applicant or employee has a current disability, or a record of disability, does not mean that an employer violated the ADA by not providing an individual with a reasonable accommodation. As discussed in Section D., there are several considerations in making reasonable accommodation determinations, including the employee’s need for the accommodation due to a disability and whether there is an accommodation that does not pose an undue hardship to the employer.

Similarly, the fact that an employer regarded an applicant or employee as an individual with a disability does not necessarily mean that the employer engaged in unlawful discrimination. For example, the ADA does not require an employer to hire anyone who is not qualified for the job. Moreover, in some instances, an employer may have a defense to an employment action taken based on an actual impairment, such as where the individual poses a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others in the workplace.

Response: A rather confusing, but in the end a straightforward application of the ADA and its final implementing regulations

N.14. Do any ADA protections apply to applicants or employees who do not meet an ADA definition of disability? (12/14/21)

Yes. The ADA’s requirements about disability-related inquiries and medical exams, medical confidentialityretaliation, and interference apply to all applicants and employees, regardless of whether they have an ADA disability. By contrast, an individual must have a “disability” to challenge employment decisions based on disability, denial of reasonable accommodation, or disability-based harassment.

 

Response: Straightforward

 

Summarizing thoughts: Much of this guidance is arguably unnecessarily confusing, especially if you adopt some preventive law approaches. The key takeaways to this update being that Covid-19 very well could be a disability and that long-haul Covid-19 most probably is. Many guidances are unfortunately unnecessarily confusing and therefore, lawyers should always remember to do an independent analysis. My favorite example of a guidance that is not unnecessarily confusing and does a great job of educating people that it needs to educate was the one discussed in this blog entry.

Before getting started on the blog entry for the week, which as I promised is a recap of the oral arguments held last Tuesday in two cases that very much could affect the world of disability rights, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the passing of Bob Dole. When it comes to the ADA, the two senators that come to mind immediately are Bob Dole on the Republican side and Tom Harkin on the Democratic side. Bob Dole was a tireless advocate for people with disabilities and was disabled himself. His record of service was incredible. He will definitely be missed. People with disabilities owe him a great debt of gratitude. More information about Bob Dole and what he accomplished can be found here.

 

Turning to the subject of the blog entry of the day, Becerra and Cummings, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in both cases last Tuesday. Becerra is a case that brings up the utility of Chevron deference. Cummings is the case that raises the issue of whether emotional distress damages are available under §504 of the Rehabilitation Act. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: Becerra; Cummings intro; Cummings oral argument/Questions from the Justices; and Cummings if I were a betting person. Of course, the reader is free to read any or all of the blog entry. Since the blog entry is so short, the reader is probably going to want to read the whole thing, but I could see a reader just reading the Becerra or Cummings section too.

 

I

Becerra

 

  1. The case involves interpreting a Medicare statute and its final implementing regulations. The final implementing regulations and how it got to that point are a mess and the parties did not disagree with that.
  2. The question before the court was essentially whether you could refuse to apply Chevron deference to a situation where the rulemaking was so messed up that only two people in the United States understood the rule.
  3. If I was a betting person, it looks like there was a majority of Justices ready to hold that a court does not have to apply Chevron deference when the procedural history of a rule is totally messed up and the final rule tortures the plain meaning of words. Such a holding would be an expansion of when a court does not have to find Chevron deference applicable. Such a holding would also not throw out Chevron deference entirely but just expand the ability of courts to not apply it. There are Justices that would like to throw Chevron deference out entirely but that wouldn’t be necessary in this case. Justice Roberts tends to be more of an incrementalist this way, and so he may be particularly receptive to that approach.

 

II

Cummings introduction

 

  1. In Barnes v. Gorman, here, the Supreme Court said that compensatory damages are available under the Rehabilitation Act but not punitive damages.
  2. Gebser, which Liese (discussed here), adopted, set out just what is deliberate indifference.
  3. The Rehabilitation Act is a contractual matter.
  4. A line of cases stretching back forty years says that innkeepers and common carriers that discriminate can be liable for emotional distress damages under §504.

III

Cummings Oral Argument/Question from the Justices

 

  1. Justice Barrett was interested in figuring out the best analogy for the case. She wondered whether the innkeepers and common carrier line of cases was the best analogy. Those cases have long held emotional distress damages are available in §504 cases.
  2. Justice Kavanaugh and many other Justices were concerned about emotional distress damages being uncapped.
  3. Justice Roberts pointed out that contractual remedies are a matter of state law, which isn’t all that helpful when trying to resolve the question before them.
  4. Justice Alito wanted a better understanding of the emotional cost of the discrimination. Justice Breyer in one of his hypotheticals attempted to address that concern.
  5. Justice Kagan, like Justice Barrett, also wondered if the common carrier and innkeeper cases was not the most analogous line of cases to look to.
  6. Justice Kavanaugh wondered why the nondiscrimination statutes should not be looked at.
  7. When it comes to Rehabilitation Act cases, the question is whether the contractual obligation was clear to the defendant. Justice Alito wondered whether that was a subjective or objective standard.
  8. There is also a line of cases saying that where nonpecuniary interests are involved, emotional distress damages are on the table. Justice Kagan wondered whether that line of cases was the best one to look to.
  9. Justice Barrett pointed out that emotional distress damages in §504 cases has been going on for 40 years.
  10. Justice Kavanaugh also wondered whether the innkeeper line of cases was not the best line of cases to look to.
  11. Justice Kagan pointed out that discriminatory harms are often stigmatic.
  12. Justice Gorsuch was pretty much silent.

 

IV

Cummings If I Were a Betting Person

 

  1. Reading tea leaves based on Supreme Court oral arguments is always a fools errand, but it is fun to try.
  2. If I were a betting person, I am going to say that the Supreme Court is going to say by more than a simple majority that §504 of the Rehabilitation Act allows for emotional distress damages providing a person can show deliberate indifference per Gebser/Liese. By going with Gebser/Liese, the Supreme Court would also be able to say that deliberate indifference is different than punitive damages when it comes to §504 claims. So, there is no conflict between such a holding and the holding in Barnes v. Gorman. Such a holding would also allow the Supreme Court to be able to address their worry about uncapped emotional distress damages because deliberate indifference is a high standard.

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving weekend.

A couple of housekeeping matters. First, my daughter and I will be heading out to a college that she got into for admitted students day. So, my schedule is really compact this week, and I am not sure I will be able to get up a full blog entry. Also, tomorrow is the oral argument in Cummings, which asks the question whether §504 of the Rehabilitation Act allows for emotional distress damages. It also turns out that oral argument will be heard in a rather complicated Medicare reimbursement case that in part asks the question as to how much currency Chevron deference will continue to get. That question, the continuing viability of Chevron deference, certainly has relevance to what we talk about in our blog. My plan is to print out the transcript for both arguments and then blog on them as my next full blog entry.

So, for this week we have a short one. I am the lead plaintiff in a case against LawPractice CLE, a CLE provider based entirely on the web. Unfortunately, when I tried to access a seminar, I did not have access to captioning or to dial in. Eventually, that led to a lawsuit. The claim in the lawsuit is not that law practice CLE is a place of a public accommodation, but rather that §309 of the ADA mandates that such a provider provide its CLE to Deaf, deaf, and HOH individuals via captioning . Today, we received a denial of the motion to dismiss (see this law360 article, subscription required), and I wanted to pass that along here.

Will be back next week with a longer blog entry discussing two different Supreme Court arguments that go off on 11/30.

With Thanksgiving week coming up and my wife and daughter coming back from a college trip later today, I thought I would get a blog entry up this weekend for the Thanksgiving week.

It has been a while since we talked about EEOC guidance on Covid-19. In fact, since our last discussion, the EEOC has updated it twice. The first time focused on accommodating sincerely religious beliefs. Since that wasn’t exactly an ADA issue, I didn’t jump in at that time. However, their most recent updates definitely impacts the ADA universe. So, it is time to cover the latest two updates to the guidance. The blog entry will take the updated section verbatim that we have not covered and then at the end of that particular section I will give my thoughts and takeaways. §L and M of the guidance will all be covered in their entirety. §K just has certain section that were added since the last time we wrote about this.

COVID-19 Vaccinations:  EEO Overview

K.1.  Under the ADA, Title VII, and other federal employment nondiscrimination laws, may an employer require all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated against COVID-19?    (Updated 10/13/21)

The federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, subject to the reasonable accommodation provisions of Title VII and the ADA and other EEO considerations discussed below. (See Section L, Vaccinations – Title VII and Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates).

In some circumstances, Title VII and the ADA require an employer to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who, because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, do not get vaccinated against COVID-19, unless providing an accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.  The analysis for undue hardship depends on whether the accommodation is for a disability (including pregnancy-related conditions that constitute a disability) (see K.6) or for religion (see K.12).

As with any employment policy, employers that have a vaccination requirement may need to respond to allegations that the requirement has a disparate impact on—or disproportionately excludes—employees based on their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin under Title VII (or age under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act [40+]). Employers should keep in mind that because some individuals or demographic groups may face barriers to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination, some employees may be more likely to be negatively impacted by a vaccination requirement.

It would also be unlawful to apply a vaccination requirement to employees in a way that treats employees differently based on disability, race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), national origin, age, or genetic information, unless there is a legitimate non-discriminatory reason.

Thoughts/takeaways:

  1. Keep in mind that undue hardship for accommodating sincerely religious beliefs and undue hardship for accommodating persons with disabilities do not at all mean the same thing.
  2. Open question as to whether an employer requiring all Applicants to be vaccinated for Covid-19 would not be a prohibited disability related inquiry. I have seen at least one management attorney make that argument. Remember, that the ADA has a scheme for dealing with disability related inquiries and medical exams, which we discussed here.

K.3.  How can employers encourage employees and their family members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 without violating the EEO laws, especially the ADA and GINA?   (Updated 10/13/21)

Employers may provide employees and their family members with information to educate them about COVID-19 vaccines, raise awareness about the benefits of vaccination, and address common questions and concerns. Employers also may work with local public health authorities, medical providers, or pharmacies to make vaccinations available for unvaccinated workers in the workplace.  Also, under certain circumstances employers may offer incentives to employees who receive COVID-19 vaccinations, as discussed in K.16 – K.21. The federal government is providing COVID-19 vaccines at no cost to everyone 12 years of age and older.

There are many resources available to employees seeking more information about how to get vaccinated against COVID-19:

  • The federal government’s online vaccines.gov site can identify vaccination sites anywhere in the country (or https://www.vacunas.gov for Spanish).  Individuals also can text their ZIP  code to “GETVAX” (438829)–or “VACUNA” (822862) for Spanish–to find three vaccination locations near them.
  • Employees with disabilities (or employees family members with disabilities) may need extra support to obtain a vaccination, such as transportation or in-home vaccinations.  The HHS/Administration for Community Living has launched the Disability Information and Assistance Line (DIAL) to assist individuals with disabilities in obtaining such help.   DIAL can be reached at: 888-677-1199 from 9 am to 8 pm (Eastern Standard Time) Mondays through Fridays or by emailing DIAL@n4a.org.
  • CDC’s website offers a link to a listing of local health departments, which can provide more information about local vaccination efforts.
  • In addition, CDC provides a complete communication “tool kit” for employers to use with their workforce to educate people about getting a COVID-19 vaccine.  Although originally written for essential workers and employers, it is useful for all workers and employers.  See Workplace Vaccination Program | CDC.
  • Some employees may not have reliable access to the internet to identify nearby vaccination locations or may speak no English or have limited English proficiency and find it difficult to make an appointment for a vaccination over the phone. CDC operates a toll-free telephone line that can provide assistance in many languages for individuals seeking more information about vaccinations: 800-232-4636; TTY 888-232-6348.
  • Some employees also may require assistance with transportation to vaccination sites. Employers may gather and disseminate information to their employees on low-cost and no-cost transportation resources serving vaccination sites available in their community and offer paid time-off for vaccination, particularly if transportation is not readily available outside regular work hours.
  • Employers should provide the contact information of a management representative for employees who need to request a reasonable accommodation for a disability or religious belief, practice, or observance, or to ensure nondiscrimination for an employee who is pregnant.

Thoughts/takeaways: K3 is self-explanatory and don’t have anything to add.

The ADA and COVID-19 Vaccinations

K.4.  Is information about an employee’s COVID-19 vaccination confidential medical information under the ADA?  (Updated 10/13/21)

Yes.  The ADA requires an employer to maintain the confidentiality of employee medical information. Although the EEO laws do not prevent employers from requiring employees to provide documentation or other confirmation of vaccination, this information, like all medical information, must be kept confidential and stored separately from the employee’s personnel files under the ADA.

Thoughts/takeaways: self-explanatory but very important to remember.

Mandatory Employer Vaccination Programs

K.9.  Does the ADA prevent an employer from inquiring about or requesting documentation or other confirmation that an employee obtained a COVID-19 vaccination?   (Updated 10/13/21)

No.  When an employer asks employees whether they obtained a COVID-19 vaccination, the employer is not asking the employee a question that is likely to disclose the existence of a disability; there are many reasons an employee may not show documentation or other confirmation of vaccination besides having a disability.  Therefore, requesting documentation or other confirmation of vaccination is not a disability-related inquiry under the ADA, and the ADA’s rules about making such inquiries do not apply.

However, documentation or other confirmation of vaccination provided by the employee to the employer is medical information about the employee and must be kept confidential, as discussed in K.4.

Thoughts/takeaways: As mentioned previously, I have seen attorneys make the argument that requiring proof of vaccination prior to a conditional job offer might be a disability related inquiry prohibited by the ADA. However, this section is referring to Employees, which can make a big difference in the analysis. The EEOC is saying that with respect to employees the ADA does not prevent an employer from inquiring about or requesting documentation or other confirmation that an employee obtained a Covid-19 vaccination because there are variety of reasons why they may not show documentation or other confirmation of vaccination besides having a disability.

 

Title VII and COVID-19 Vaccinations

K.13.  Under Title VII, what should an employer do if an employee chooses not to receive a COVID-19 vaccination due to pregnancy?   (Updated 10/13/21)

CDC recommends COVID-19 vaccinations for everyone aged 12 years and older, including people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to get pregnant now, or planning to become pregnant in the future.  Despite these recommendations, some pregnant employees may seek job adjustments or may request exemption from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

If an employee seeks an exemption from a vaccination requirement due to pregnancy, the employer must ensure that the employee is not being discriminated against compared to other employees similar in their ability or inability to work.  This means that a pregnant employee may be entitled to job modifications, including telework, changes to work schedules or assignments, and leave to the extent such modifications are provided for other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.  Employers should ensure that supervisors, managers, and human resources personnel know how to handle such requests to avoid disparate treatment in violation of Title VII.

Thoughts/takeaways: this particular section is really nothing more than an explanation of the Young case, which we referenced here. While pregnancy is not a disability per se, the side effects of pregnancy might be. Also, dealing with pregnancy because of Young means going through the same reasonable accommodation analysis as you would for a person with a disability.

GINA And COVID-19 Vaccinations

Title II of GINA prohibits covered employers from using the genetic information of employees to make employment decisions.  It also restricts employers from requesting, requiring, purchasing, or disclosing genetic information of employees.  Under Title II of GINA, genetic information includes information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in a family member (which is referred to as “family medical history”) and information from genetic tests of the individual employee or a family member, among other things. 

K.15.  Is Title II of GINA implicated when an employer requires employees to provide documentation or other confirmation that they received a vaccination from a health care provider that is not affiliated with their employer (such as from the employee’s personal physician or other health care provider, a pharmacy, or a public health department)? (Updated 10/13/21)

No.  An employer requiring an employee to show documentation or other confirmation of vaccination from a health care provider unaffiliated with the employer, such as the employee’s personal physician or other health care provider, a pharmacy, or a public health department, is not using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information and, therefore, is not implicating Title II of GINA.  This is the case even if the medical screening questions that must be asked before vaccination include questions about genetic information, because documentation or other confirmation of vaccination would not reveal genetic information.  Title II of GINA does not prohibit an employee’s own health care provider from asking questions about genetic information.  This GINA Title II prohibition only applies to the employer or its agent.

Thoughts/takeaways: the key here is documentation or other confirmation of vaccination is coming from a healthcare provider unaffiliated with the employer.

Employer Incentives For COVID-19 Voluntary Vaccinations Under ADA and GINA

ADA:  Employer Incentives for Voluntary COVID-19 Vaccinations

K.16.  Does the ADA limit the value of the incentive employers may offer to employees for voluntarily receiving a COVID-19 vaccination from a health care provider that is not affiliated with their employer (such as the employee’s personal physician or other health care provider, a pharmacy, or a public health department)?   (Updated 10/13/21)

No.  The ADA does not limit the incentives an employer may offer to encourage employees to voluntarily receive a COVID-19 vaccination, or to provide confirmation of vaccination, if the health care provider administering a COVID-19 vaccine is not the employer or its agent.  By contrast, if an employer offers an incentive to employees to voluntarily receive a vaccination administered by the employer or its agent, the ADA’s rules on disability-related inquiries apply and the value of the incentive may not be so substantial as to be coercive.  See K.17.

As noted in K 4., the employer is required to keep vaccination information confidential under the ADA.

Thoughts/takeaways: the key here is the employer offering an incentive to employees getting the Covid-19 vaccination from a healthcare provider that is Not affiliated with their employer.

K.17.  Under the ADA, are there limits on the value of the incentive employers may offer to employees for voluntarily receiving a COVID-19 vaccination administered by the employer or its agent?   (Updated 10/13/21)

Yes.  When the employer or its agent administers a COVID-19 vaccine, the value of the incentive (which includes both rewards and penalties) may not be so substantial as to be coercive.  Because vaccinations require employees to answer pre-vaccination disability-related screening questions, a very large incentive could make employees feel pressured to disclose protected medical information to their employers or their agents. As explained in K.16., however, this incentive limit does not apply if an employer offers an incentive to encourage employees to be voluntarily vaccinated by a health care provider that is not their employer or an agent of their employer.

Thoughts/takeaways: different ballgame for when the employer or agent administers a Covid-19 vaccine. Here, you want to be very careful about the incentives you offer. Anything going beyond de minimis, might run the employer into trouble.

GINA:  Employer Incentives for Voluntary COVID-19 Vaccinations

K.18.  Does GINA limit the value of the incentive employers may offer employees if employees or their family members get a COVID-19 vaccination from a health care provider that is not affiliated with the employer (such as the employee’s personal physician or other health care provider, a pharmacy, or a public health department)?   (Updated 10/13/21)

No.  GINA does not limit the incentives an employer may offer to employees to encourage them or their family members to get a COVID-19 vaccine or provide confirmation of vaccination if the health care provider administering the vaccine is not the employer or its agent.  If an employer asks an employee to show documentation or other confirmation that the employee or a family member has been vaccinated, it is not an unlawful request for genetic information under GINA because the fact that someone received a vaccination is not information about the manifestation of a disease or disorder in a family member (known as “family medical history” under GINA), nor is it any other form of genetic information. GINA’s restrictions on employers acquiring genetic information (including those prohibiting incentives in exchange for genetic information), therefore, do not apply.

Thoughts/takeaways: no limit on the incentives an employer may offer to employees to encourage the employee or their family member to get a Covid-19 vaccine or provide confirmation of vaccination where the healthcare provider administering the vaccine is Not the employer or the employer’s agent.

L. Vaccinations – Title VII and Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

The EEOC enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. This includes a right for job applicants and employees to request an exception, called a religious or reasonable accommodation, from an employer requirement that conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.  If an employer shows that it cannot reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, practices, or observances without undue hardship on its operations, the employer is not required to grant the accommodation.  See generally Section 12: Religious Discrimination; EEOC Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Religion. Although other laws, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), may also protect religious freedom in some circumstances, this technical assistance only describes employment rights and obligations under Title VII.

L.1. Do employees who have a religious objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination need to tell their employer?  If so, is there specific language that must be used under Title VII? (10/28/21)

Employees must tell their employer if they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement because of a conflict between that requirement and their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances (hereafter called “religious beliefs”).  Under Title VII, this is called a request for a “religious accommodation” or a “reasonable accommodation.”

When making the request, employees do not need to use any “magic words,” such as “religious accommodation” or “Title VII.”  However, they need to notify the employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

The same principles apply if employees have a religious conflict with getting a particular vaccine and wish to wait until an alternative version or specific brand of COVID-19 vaccine is available.

As a best practice, an employer should provide employees and applicants with information about whom to contact, and the procedures (if any) to use, to request a religious accommodation.

As an example, here is how EEOC designed its own form for its own workplace. Although the EEOC’s internal forms typically are not made public, it is included here given the extraordinary circumstances facing employers and employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Note: Persons not employed by the EEOC should not submit this form to the EEOC to request a religious accommodation.)

Thoughts/takeaways: with respect to the reasonable accommodation request for a sincerely held religious belief, the activation of the request is the same as under the ADA. That is, magic words are not required.

L.2. Does an employer have to accept an employee’s assertion of a religious objection to a COVID-19 vaccination at face value?  May the employer ask for additional information? (10/25/21)

Generally, under Title VII, an employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs.  However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.  An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.  See generally Section 12-IV.A.2: Religious Discrimination.

The definition of “religion” under Title VII protects nontraditional religious beliefs that may be unfamiliar to employers.  While the employer should not assume that a request is invalid simply because it is based on unfamiliar religious beliefs, employees may be asked to explain the religious nature of their belief and should not assume that the employer already knows or understands it.  By contrast, Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences.  Section 12-I.A.1: Religious Discrimination (definition of religion).  Thus, objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine, do not qualify as “religious beliefs” under Title VII.

The sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs also is not usually in dispute.  The employee’s sincerity in holding a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility.”  Section 12-I.A.2: Religious Discrimination (credibility and sincerity).  Factors that – either alone or in combination – might undermine an employee’s credibility include:  whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief (although employees need not be scrupulous in their observance); whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons; whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); and whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

The employer may ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious belief conflicts with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.  Although prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, an individual’s beliefs – or degree of adherence – may change over time and, therefore, an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be sincerely held.  An employer should not assume that an employee is insincere simply because some of the employee’s practices deviate from the commonly followed tenets of the employee’s religion, or because the employee adheres to some common practices but not others.  No one factor or consideration is determinative, and employers should evaluate religious objections on an individual basis.

When an employee’s objection to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement is not religious in nature, or is not sincerely held, Title VII does not require the employer to provide an exception to the vaccination requirement as a religious accommodation.

Thoughts/takeaways:

  1. Until many people started utilizing sincerely held religious beliefs as a way of circumventing Covid-19 vaccination requirements, the practice was that employers assumed that a request for religious accommodation was based on a sincerely held religious belief. They could do that because it doesn’t take much for something to rise to an undue hardship with respect to accommodating religious beliefs.
  2. If the employer has an objective basis for questioning the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer is justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional information. The employee then has to cooperate with any reasonable request from the employer for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of his or her belief or risk losing his or her claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.
  3. Unfamiliar religious beliefs can be a religious belief. Social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences do not qualify for protection.
  4. Factors the EEOC says to consider in trying to determine whether the employee has a credible sincerely held religious belief include: 1) whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief, though they do not need to be scrupulous in their observance; 2) whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons; 3) whether the timing of the request renders it suspect; and 4) whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons. No one factor or consideration is determinative, and an employer needs to evaluate religious objections on an individual basis.
  5. With respect to §4 of my thought takeaways of this section, immediately above, it seems to me that it would be very hard to apply these EEOC factors in practice.

L.3. How does an employer show that it would be an “undue hardship” to accommodate an employee’s request for religious accommodation? (10/25/21)

Under Title VII, an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment.  For suggestions about types of reasonable accommodations for unvaccinated employees, see K.6, above.  In many circumstances, it may be possible to accommodate those seeking reasonable accommodations for their religious beliefs, practices, or observances without imposing an undue hardship.

If an employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious belief without an “undue hardship” on its operations, then Title VII does not require the employer to provide the accommodation.  42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j).  The Supreme Court has held that requiring an employer to bear more than a “de minimis,” or a minimal, cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief is an undue hardship.  Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business – including, in this instance, the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public.

Courts have found Title VII undue hardship where, for example, the religious accommodation would impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.  For a more detailed discussion, see Section 12-IV.B: Religious Discrimination (discussing undue hardship).

An employer will need to assess undue hardship by considering the particular facts of each situation and will need to demonstrate how much cost or disruption the employee’s proposed accommodation would involve.  An employer cannot rely on speculative hardships when faced with an employee’s religious objection but, rather, should rely on objective information. Certain common and relevant considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic include, for example, whether the employee requesting a religious accommodation to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement works outdoors or indoors, works in a solitary or group work setting, or has close contact with other employees or members of the public (especially medically vulnerable individuals).  Another relevant consideration is the number of employees who are seeking a similar accommodation (i.e., the cumulative cost or burden on the employer).

Thoughts/takeaways: as mentioned above, undue hardship when it comes to accommodating religious views, for now anyway, is not at all the same thing as undue hardship when it comes to accommodating disabilities. Anything more than de minimus is an undue hardship for purposes of accommodating religious beliefs. It is proper to consider the burden of not getting a Covid-19 vaccination on the employer’s business.

L.4. If an employer grants some employees a religious accommodation from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement because of sincerely held religious beliefs, does it have to grant the requests of all employees who seek an accommodation because of sincerely held religious beliefs? (10/25/21)

No.  The determination of whether a particular proposed accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business depends on its specific factual context. When an employer is assessing whether exempting an employee from getting a vaccination would impair workplace safety, it may consider, for example, the type of workplace, the nature of the employee’s duties, the number of employees who are fully vaccinated, how many employees and nonemployees physically enter the workplace, and the number of employees who will in fact need a particular accommodation.  A mere assumption that many more employees might seek a religious accommodation to the vaccination requirement in the future is not evidence of undue hardship, but the employer may take into account the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees.

Thoughts/takeaways: figuring out the proper accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs requires an individualized analysis just like the ADA.

L.5. Must an employer provide the religious accommodation preferred by an employee if there are other possible accommodations that also are effective in eliminating the religious conflict and do not cause an undue hardship under Title VII? (10/25/21)

No.  If there is more than one reasonable accommodation that would resolve the conflict between the vaccination requirement and the sincerely held religious belief without causing an undue hardship under Title VII, the employer may choose which accommodation to offer.  If more than one accommodation would be effective in eliminating the religious conflict, the employer should consider the employee’s preference but is not obligated to provide the reasonable accommodation preferred by the employee.  If the employer denies the employee’s proposed accommodation, the employer should explain to the employee why the preferred accommodation is not being granted.

An employer should consider all possible alternatives to determine whether exempting an employee from a vaccination requirement would impose an undue hardship.  See, e.g., K.2. Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation is available that would not pose an undue hardship.

Thoughts/takeaways: just like the ADA, an employer can choose the accommodation to offer. As with the ADA, the employer should consider the employee’s preference but is not obligated to provide the reasonable accommodation preferred by the employee if there is more than one reasonable accommodation that will work. Also, just like the ADA the employer needs to look at all possible alternatives short of an undue hardship.

L.6. If an employer grants a religious accommodation to an employee, can the employer later reconsider it? (10/25/21)

The obligation to provide religious accommodations absent undue hardship is a continuing obligation that takes into account changing circumstances.  Employees’ religious beliefs and practices may evolve or change over time and may result in requests for additional or different religious accommodations.  Similarly, an employer has the right to discontinue a previously granted accommodation if it is no longer utilized for religious purposes, or if a provided accommodation subsequently poses an undue hardship on the employer’s operations due to changed circumstances.  As a best practice, an employer should discuss with the employee any concerns it has about continuing a religious accommodation before revoking it and consider whether there are alternative accommodations that would not impose an undue hardship.

Thoughts/takeaways: while this is all true and it is also true for the ADA, taking away accommodations is always a recipe for litigation. So if you are going to take away accommodations, you definitely want to to do that very deliberately and line up all your ducks in a row before doing it.

M. Retaliation and Interference

The anti-retaliation protections discussed here only apply to the exercise of rights under the federal equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws. Information about similar protections under other federal workplace laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Occupational Safety and Health Act, is available from the U.S. Department of Labor. Information about similar protections under the Immigration and Nationality Act’s anti-discrimination provision, which prohibits some types of workplace discrimination based on citizenship status, immigration status, or national origin, and protects against retaliation for asserting those rights, is available from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

M.1.  Do job applicants and employees (including former employees) have protections from retaliation for exercising equal employment opportunity (EEO) rights in connection with COVID-19? (11/17/21)

Yes.  Job applicants and current and former employees are protected from retaliation by employers for asserting their rights under any of the federal EEO laws.  The EEO laws prohibit workplace discrimination based on race, color, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), national origin, religion, age (40 or over), disability, or genetic information.  Speaking out about or exercising rights related to workplace discrimination is called “protected activity.”

Protected activity can take many forms.  For example, an employee complaining to a supervisor about coworker harassment based on race or national origin is protected activity.  Witnesses to discrimination who seek to assist individuals affected by discrimination are also protected.  Engaging in protected activity, however, does not shield an employee from discipline, discharge, or other employer actions taken for reasons unrelated to the protected activity.

M.2. What are some examples of employee activities that are protected from employer retaliation? (11/17/21)

  • Filing a charge, complaint, or lawsuit, regardless of whether the underlying discrimination allegation is successful or timely. For example, employers may not retaliate against employees who file charges with the EEOC alleging that their supervisor unlawfully disclosed confidential medical information (such as a COVID-19 diagnosis), even if the EEOC later decides there is no merit to the underlying charges.  Moreover, a supervisor may not give a false negative job reference to punish a former employee for making an EEO complaint, or refuse to hire an applicant because of the applicant’s EEO complaint against a prior employer.
  • Reporting alleged EEO violations to a supervisor or answering questions during an employer investigation of the alleged harassment. For example, an Asian American employee who tells a manager or human resources official that a coworker made abusive comments accusing Asian people of spreading COVID-19 is protected from retaliation for reporting the harassment. Workplace discrimination laws also prohibit retaliation against employees for reporting harassing workplace comments about their religious reasons for not being vaccinated. Similarly, workplace discrimination laws prohibit retaliation against an employee for reporting sexually harassing comments made during a work video conference meeting.
  • Resisting harassment, intervening to protect coworkers from harassment, or refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination. For example, workplace discrimination laws protect a supervisor who refuses to carry out management’s instruction not to hire certain applicants based on the sex-based presumption that they might use parental leave or have childcare needs, or to steer them to particular types of jobs.
  • Requesting accommodation of a disability (potentially including a pregnancy-related medical condition) or a religious belief, practice, or observance regardless of whether the request is granted or denied. For example, the EEO laws prohibit an employer from retaliating against an employee for requesting continued telework as a disability accommodation after a workplace reopens.  Similarly, requesting religious accommodation, such as modified protective gear that can be worn with religious garb, is protected activity.  Requests for accommodation are protected activity even if the individual is not legally entitled to accommodation, such as where the employee’s medical condition is not ultimately deemed a disability under the ADA, or where accommodation would pose an undue hardship.

Thoughts/takeaways: I am already seeing a lot of cases coming my way where a person with underlying health conditions requests the accommodation of remote work. How that request gets handled can very much depend on whether your state has policies that are anti mask and anti-vaccine or not, particularly so if the employee is in the public sector.. The key is going to be what are the essential functions of the job and can they do that job with or without reasonable accommodations. You can bet that the fact that they did their job effectively remotely while everybody was on lockdown will be used by plaintiff attorneys to show that they can do the essential functions of the job now with or without reasonable accommodations.

M.3. Who is protected from retaliation? (11/17/21)

Retaliation protections apply to current employees, whether they are full-time, part-time, probationary, seasonal, or temporary. Retaliation protections also apply to job applicants and to former employees (such as when an employer provides a job reference). In addition, these protections apply regardless of an applicant’s or employee’s citizenship or work authorization status.

Thoughts/takeaways: any kind of employee, applicant, and former employees are all protected from retaliation. Those protections apply regardless of an applicant’s or employee’s citizenship or work authorization status.

M.4. When do retaliation protections apply? (11/17/21)

Participating in an EEO complaint process is protected from retaliation under all circumstances.

Other acts by a current, prospective, or former employee to oppose discrimination are protected as long as the employee is acting on a reasonable good faith belief that something in the workplace may violate EEO laws, and expresses those beliefs in a reasonable manner.  An employee is still protected from retaliation for making a complaint about workplace discrimination even if the employee does not use legal terminology to describe the situation.

Thoughts/takeaways:

  1. Because participating in the EEO complaint process is protected from retaliation under all circumstances, it can be very important for a plaintiff attorney to get that EEOC complaint filed quickly so as to minimize any possibilities of retaliation.
  2. Many places have internal grievance procedures but nothing requires a plaintiff to exhaust that internal grievance procedure first. A plaintiff will want to consult with their attorney to figure out whether the internal grievance procedure should be utilized or not. Since the EEOC does ask whether you went through internal grievance procedures when you file the complaint with them, you want to remember that the law does not require a futile act where the plaintiff knows that the internal appeal will be useless.
  3. Good faith can be determined as a matter of law. I am aware of cases where the plaintiff had a good faith belief subjectively that what they were doing was protected activity. However, the law was such that no person knowing the law would possibly believe that. In that situation, courts have said that a plaintiff could not have a reasonable good faith belief that something in the workplace was violating the EEO laws.

M.5. When is an employer action based on an employee’s EEO activity serious enough to be unlawful retaliation? (11/17/21)

Retaliation includes any employer action in response to EEO activity that could deter a reasonable person from engaging in protected EEO activity.  Depending on the facts, this might include actions such as denial of promotion or job benefits, non-hire, suspension, discharge, work-related threats, warnings, negative or lowered evaluations, or transfers to less desirable work or work locations.  Retaliation could also include an action that has no tangible effect on employment, or even an action that takes place only outside of work, if it might deter a reasonable person from exercising EEO rights.  The fact that an individual is not actually deterred from opposing discrimination or participating in an EEO complaint-related process or activity does not preclude an employer’s action from being considered retaliatory.

However, depending on the specific situation, retaliation likely would not include a petty slight, minor annoyance, or a trivial punishment.

Thoughts/takeaways: the standard is an objective one focusing on the reasonable person. The key is whether the action deters a reasonable person from exercising EEO rights.

M.6.  Does this mean that an employer can never take action against someone who has engaged in EEO activity? (11/17/21)

No.  Engaging in protected EEO activity does not prevent discipline of an employee for legitimate reasons.  Employers are permitted to act based on non-retaliatory and non-discriminatory reasons that would otherwise result in discipline.  For example, if an employee performs poorly, has low productivity, or engages in misconduct, an employer may respond as it normally would, even if the employee has engaged in protected activity.  Similarly, an employer may take non-retaliatory, non-discriminatory action to enforce COVID-19 health and safety protocols, even if such actions follow EEO activity (e.g., an accommodation request).

Thoughts/takeaways: this is certainly all true. However, make sure that everything is lined up properly as the risk of litigation is high in the situation.

M.7.  Does the law provide any additional protections to safeguard ADA rights? (11/17/21)

Yes.  The ADA prohibits not only retaliation for protected EEO activity, but also “interference” with an individual’s exercise of ADA rights.  Under the ADA, employers may not coerce, intimidate, threaten, or otherwise interfere with the exercise of ADA rights by job applicants or current or former employees.  For instance, it is unlawful for an employer to use threats to discourage someone from asking for a reasonable accommodation.  It is also unlawful for an employer to pressure an employee not to file a disability discrimination complaint.  The ADA also prohibits employers from interfering with employees helping others to exercise their ADA rights.

The employer’s actions may still violate the ADA’s interference provision even if an employer does not actually carry out a threat, and even if the employee is not deterred from exercising ADA rights.

 

Thoughts/takeaways: interference is an extremely underutilized provision of the ADA. The most common place that I see it is when a higher up gets involved with the accommodation decision instead of the people directly involved with the workers seeking the accommodation. The other place that I see it a lot is in higher education where a professor refuses to carry out accommodations put in place by disability services. For how to go about proving up and interference claim, we discussed that here. I do not have an answer as to why interference claims simply do not come up a lot. That very well could change in the future.

Today’s blog entry deals with the question of what happens when you have an individual with a progressive disability who becomes aware of inaccessibility of a public entity’s facilities. When he becomes aware of inaccessibility issues by the public entity, he files suit but then withdraws it because the accessibility issues are not a problem for him at that time. Some years go by, and his disability progresses to the point where those inaccessibility issues are now a real problem. He brings suit and the public entity claims that the statute of limitations has expired because he knew of the issues too many years before he actually brought the suit. The district court buys the argument and plaintiff appeals. These are exactly the facts in Karantsalis v. City of Miami Springs, Florida a published decision decided by the 11th Circuit on November 12, 2021, here. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; court’s reasoning; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.

 

I

Facts (Taken Directly from the Opinion)

 

Plaintiff-Appellant Theodore D. Karantsalis is a resident of the City of Miami Springs (the City). In 2008, following a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), Karantsalis sued the City alleging that it violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by failing to make its facilities and infrastructure accessible to individuals with disabilities. He later voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit based on his belief that he lacked constitutional standing because his symptoms were mild and did not prevent him from accessing and using the City’s programs or services. At that time, Karantsalis was able to walk, stand, routinely bicycle and jog, and participate in races. Over a decade later, in 2019, Karantsalis’s MS and his symptoms had progressed dramatically. In 2017, he started falling, developed a limp, and needed a Florida disabled parking permit. By June 2019, his neurologist had prescribed a wheelchair. Also in 2019, he again sued the City under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act alleging the City’s sidewalks, municipal gymnasium, and parking at public facilities were inaccessible. The district court dismissed the case with prejudice, holding that it was “barred by the statute of limitations” because the statute of limitations was triggered before or during 2008 when Karantsalis became aware of the undisputed fact of his MS diagnosis. The mere fact of his MS diagnosis in 2008, the district court in effect ruled, triggered the accrual of his cause of action and the running of the four-year statute of limitations.

 

II

Court’s Reasoning

 

  1. The ADA does not contain a statute of limitations period. So, the federal courts will look to the most analogous state limitation period. In Florida and most states, the most analogous state limitations period comes from the personal injury actions, which is four years in Florida.
  2. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination by public entities against individuals with disabilities.
  3. In order to state an ADA claim under title II of the ADA or §504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a plaintiff has to show: 1) he or she is a qualified individual with a disability; 2) he or she was either excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of a public entity’s services, program, activities, or otherwise discriminated against by the public entity; and 3) the exclusion, denial of benefit, or discrimination was by reason of the plaintiff’s disability.
  4. A public entity must operate each service, program, or activity so that the service, program, or activity, when viewed in its entirety, is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.
  5. The City is obligated to ensure that each service, program, or activity at its municipal facilities, when viewed in its entirety, is readily accessible to individuals with disabilities.
  6. A statute of limitations does not begin to run until the facts supporting the cause of action are apparent or should be apparent to a person with a reasonably prudent regard for his rights.
  7. Plaintiff’s injury did not occur until at least 2017 when his mobility decreased to the level that he could no longer readily access and use the City’s public services because of its ADA noncompliant facilities.
  8. Plaintiff’s ADA injury is the City’s denial of the benefits of the public services. In other words, plaintiff could not have sued the City before he lost his mobility and his ready access to and use of the City’s public services.
  9. To sue in federal court, the plaintiff must show that he had an injury. The difference between 2008 and 2017 was that the plaintiff in 2017, had now lost the mobility necessary to readily access the services in the ADA noncompliant facilities. It was only then that plaintiff suffered his injury. So, it was not until 2017 that plaintiff’s ADA cause of action accrued and he could sue.
  10. A plaintiff must know or have reason to know that he was injured to some extent. In this particular case, that did not occur until plaintiff’s disease had progressed sufficiently enough for him to know or have reason to know he personally was denied the benefits of the City’s public services.
  11. Determining whether an injury occurred is a highly fact specific determination and at the motion to dismiss stage, a court reviews the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.
  12. When a plaintiff’s ADA claim accrues is a question of federal law and not state law.
  13. Since the function of title II of the ADA is to ensure the accessibility of public services for people with disabilities, it naturally follows that a person does not suffer an injury (and therefore does not have standing to sue), in a title II ADA access case unless they were unable to access a public service because of their disability.
  14. The injury is not the diagnosis. Rather, the injury is the plaintiff’s inability to readily access the City’s facilities and the resulting denial of the benefits of the City’s public services, which did not occur until 2017.
  15. Plaintiff’s current suit even involves some facilities that he did not include in his 2008 case and some facilities that were altered as late as 2016.
  16. The district court erroneously focused on the timing of plaintiff’s diagnosis rather than on plaintiff’s injury. Although plaintiff had multiple sclerosis in both 2008 and 2017, the district court failed to establish that he was similarly injured in both 2008 and 2017 before finding his suit time-barred.
  17. Since plaintiff actually experienced his injury only in 2017, his ADA claim against the City was not barred by the statute of limitations when he filed a complaint in 2019.
  18. In order to have standing under title III of the ADA, the following is required: 1) injury in fact; 2) a causal connection between the asserted injury in fact and the challenged action of the defendant; and 3) the injury would be redressed by a favorable decision. Plaintiff has standing because he was not actually injured until at least 2017 when he could no longer access the public services in the City’s ADA noncompliant facilities.
  19. In a footnote, the court notes that they are not saying that the accrual date and every ADA access case dovetails with the standing requirements. Rather, the court is saying that the plaintiff’s ADA claim, whether it be for damages or injunctive relief, did not accrue until at least 2017 because plaintiff did not suffer an ADA injury until then.
  20. If the key to figuring out statute of limitations was a person’s diagnosis, then anyone diagnosed with a progressive illness would have to assume his or her condition would progress to the worst possible outcome at some point down the road and sue within the statutory period from the time the person was diagnosed with the condition even if he or she showed no symptoms at the time. Not only would such an individual lack standing at that time, but the law does not require a person with a disability to foresee the future.

III

Thoughts/Takeaways

  1. When a statute of limitation begins to run for ADA claims is something we have discussed before, such as here. Also, keep in mind that the particular statute of limitations that a court looks to can vary from state to state. In most situations, the analogous statute of limitations is the personal injury statute of limitations but that isn’t always true. Also, most of the personal injury actions statute of limitations are at least two years, but three or four years does happen from time to time. Whenever you are dealing with an ADA case, you do need to know what is the most analogous statute of limitations and what that statute of limitations is. For example, in Virginia, it is one year because they look to the Virginia disability nondiscrimination statute.
  2. The reasoning of the court appears sound to me. People with disabilities, even those with progressive disabilities, can vary radically in terms of how those disabilities progress. Also, the ADA requires an individualized analysis at the current time. So, this decision is perfectly consistent with all of that.
  3. The case study brings up a critical point, which is a plaintiff should stay away from notice pleadings. Instead, adopt a fact-notice pleadings hybrid approach whereby you put the defendant on notice with enough facts so that they can’t possibly question whether the person has a disability at that moment in time the complaint is filed.
  4. I see little likelihood of a Circuit Court split developing on this question.
  5. It is a published decision and so binding precedent in the 11th Circuit and persuasive and citable authority everywhere else.
  6. Title II of the ADA focuses on program accessibility. However, §504 the Rehabilitation Act goes much further than the ADA by requiring all operations of many kinds of vanity be meaningfully accessible to persons with disabilities. See 29 U.S.C. §794(b).
  7. Federal law determines when a cause of action accrues and not state law.
  8. In ADA cases, it is important to not get hung up on the diagnosis, especially after the amendments to the ADA. The key is whether any of the definitions of disability found in 42 U.S.C. §12102 are satisfied and not the diagnosis.
  9. If a facility is altered, then those alterations in the path of travel to those alterations must be done in accordance with the applicable ADAAG guidelines. We discussed what an alteration was here.