Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. We aren’t out of the woods yet with Covid-19. So, please be safe.

 

Today’s blog entry comes from the Fourth Circuit, Elledge v. Lowe’s Home Centers, LLC1801846767199,  a published decision decided on November 18, 2020. The case deals with two issues: failure to accommodate; and whether the ADA requires mandatory reassignment. So, the categories for this blog entry are going to be: facts; court’s reasoning failure to accommodate; court’s reasoning mandatory reassignment is not required by the ADA; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.

 

I

Facts

 

Chuck Elledge worked for Lowe’s for over two decades. In 1993, Elledge accepted employment as a health care analyst at Lowe’s Home Center. He earned multiple promotions over the years, ultimately attaining the position of Market Director of Stores (MDS). In this position, Elledge oversaw a dozen stores. He ensured that his stores complied with corporate quality standards and, of course, that they continued to turn a healthy profit. Elledge served as an MDS for almost a decade, and the stores under his supervision performed well. Elledge also had problems with his right knee. In December 2014, he underwent the most serious of four surgeries on his knee. When he returned from leave, once effortless aspects of his job had become trials in “working through the pain.” Walking 4 the floors of the stores he supervised had become trying at times, and driving from store to store could be taxing. Given the demands of his station, these changes in Elledge’s condition were significant. For Elledge and for Lowe’s, the store visits were essential to maintaining high levels of compliance and performance. To keep pace with the needs of his stores, Elledge had typically conducted two separate store visits each day and worked between fifty and sixty hours each week, with the considerable walking and driving that entailed. Upon his return to work, Elledge’s doctor ordered him to restrict his walking to no more than four hours each day and his workday to no more than eight. Lowe’s, in consultation with Elledge, agreed that, for a time, he could and should abide by his doctor’s orders while he continued to work. Lowe’s also offered Elledge the use of a motorized scooter to ease the strain on his knee during store visits. Elledge declined the use of the motorized scooter and, although he did comply with his light-work schedule most of the time, he did not always find himself able to follow his doctor’s orders. Elledge arranged for his lower-ranking colleagues, who had previously only accompanied Elledge on his store visits, to drive him to and from the stores under his supervision, so that Elledge would have an opportunity to stretch out his knee in the back seat. Shortly after renewing these accommodations, Lowe’s learned that Elledge would be issued a permanent disabled parking permit. Contacting Elledge’s doctor, Lowe’s inquired whether Elledge’s restrictions would be permanent. The doctor replied in the affirmative: “I rec these be permanent restrictions.” In response to this development, Lowe’s Regional Human Resources Director Hollie Reinhart and Vice President of Store Operations Delno Dryden had several conversations with Elledge. The purpose of these conversations was to chart a mutually agreeable course forward. Although Elledge would not be able to remain in his present position, Reinhart and Dryden spoke with him about other potential career opportunities at Lowe’s, agreeing to network on his behalf regarding any vacancy in which he had an interest or, in the alternative, to help shift him to a less physically demanding manager level role. Displeased at the prospect of stepping down into a lower paying position, Elledge applied to two other director-level positions, Merchandising Director of Lawn and Garden and Merchandising Director of Outdoor Power Equipment. His applications were considered and rejected under Lowe’s succession planning and best-qualified hiring policies. Ryan Lane, who had been identified through the Lawn and Garden department’s succession planning policy, was selected for the former position. Chad Sanders, who had founded Lowe’s Assistant Store Manager Leadership Development Program and directed Lowe’s Leadership Development Sessions for the National Sales Meetings, was selected for the latter. Elledge, meanwhile, accepted Lowe’s offer of a severance package and early retirement.

 

Elledge then sued for violations of the ADA and ADEA (ADEA we won’t cover). The District Court granted summary judgment for Lowe’s and Elledge appealed.

 

II

Court’s Reasoning Failure to Accommodate

 

  1. A function of the job is essential as long as it bears more than a marginal relationship to the job at issue.
  2. In determining the essential functions of a job, consideration is given to the employer’s judgment. That is, the decision about a job’s essential function belongs in the first instance to the employer and merits considerable deference from the courts.
  3. A court performing the essential functions inquiry must consult the full range of evidence bearing on the employer’s judgment, including the testimony of senior officials and those familiar with the daily requirements of the job.
  4. No reason exists to doubt the District Court’s conclusion that the essential functions of plaintiff’s job included: standing or walking in excess of four hours each day; traveling to all supervised stores; and working in excess of eight hours each day.
  5. The official job description stated that a candidate must be capable walking frequently, defined as 34-66% of working hours, and driving continuously, defined as 67-100% of working hours. These requirements meant that the plaintiff had to push his mobility and stamina on days when his job required him to walk 66% of the time as well on days he had to drive almost without ceasing.
  6. Plaintiff’s own testimony revealed that his job would not possible without significant amount of driving and walking. That testimony was backed up by plaintiff’s supervisor’s testimony.
  7. When it comes to essential functions of the job, what matters is testimony about the day-to-day regimen of the job. Here, the testimony is clear that plaintiff had to work in excess of eight hours each day with respect to the day-to-day regimen of the job.
  8. For a person to be a qualified individual under the ADA, they have to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations. No serious dispute exists that plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of the job without reasonable accommodations.
  9. Plaintiff turned down accommodations offered by Lowe’s including: not taking advantage of light work accommodation; not complying with his doctor’s orders with total consistency; refusing even to try using a motorized scooter to aid his store walk-throughs; and without receiving formal clearance through the interactive process, crafting his own accommodation by making arrangements with associates who usually accompanied him on store visit for them to drive him back and forth. In short, plaintiff accepted or created certain accommodations, rejected others and pushed himself beyond the limits of his doctor’s orders.
  10. To the extent an employee can be accommodated through a variety of measures, it is the employer exercising sound judgment that possesses the ultimate discretion over how that will be done.
  11. Provided the employer’s choice of accommodation is reasonable, a court may not substitute its own judgment for the employer’s choice.
  12. Plaintiff’s manifest need to disregard his physician as well as him creating accommodations outside the interactive process created the situation that Lowe’s could reasonably assume meant the plaintiff had limited long-term potential.
  13. After plaintiff’s four separate knee surgeries in almost as many years, Lowe’s was also reasonable in concluding that the light duty accommodation was no longer viable. With no tangible signs of improvement, Lowe’s could not have been expected to allow a dramatic reduction in the work requirement indefinitely.
  14. Plaintiff rejected the scooter accommodation. As such, Lowe’s was under no obligation to extend an offer for other accommodations.
  15. Plaintiff’s arrangement to have another employee drive him to his stores is not something that Lowe’s had to recognize as reasonable because an employer need not change a job’s essential functions or split them across multiple employees.

 

III

 

Court’s Reasoning Mandatory Reassignment Is Not Required by the ADA

 

  1. Other Circuits and the interpretive guidance of the EEOC persuasively recognize that reassignment is an accommodation of last resort.
  2. Allowing other reasonable forms of accommodation to take precedence over reassignment protects the employer’s discretion over hiring. That discretion is what makes it possible for the employer to discharge its responsibility to promote workplace stability and workforce changes over time and to reward merit through predictable advancement. It is also fundamental to the employer’s freedom to run a business in an economically viable way.
  3. Reassignment as a last resort also encourages employers to take reasonable measures to accommodate their employees with disabilities in the position they already hold. The employee is saved from being hurled into an unfamiliar position with a different set of demands. Rather, the employee is allowed to maintain and grow the investment he has already made and his present job.
  4. Deemphasizing reassignment helps preserve a fair balance in the relationship between an employee with a disability and his colleagues. Reassignment is unique in its potential to disrupt the settled expectations of other employees.
  5. The ADA does not require an employer to reassign an individual with a disability where that individual would bump another employee from his position or block reasonable longtime workplace expectations.
  6. Holding reassignment in reserve for unusual circumstances adds to the confidence of other employees that the misfortune of a colleague will not unfairly deprive them of opportunities for which they themselves have worked for.
  7. The Supreme Court has never held that mandatory reassignment is required by the ADA.
  8. The decision of the Supreme Court, U.S. Airways v. Barnett1811856868200– holding that the ADA did not require bumping of an employee no longer qualified to do his current job-, did not require employers to construct preferential accommodations maximizing workplace opportunity for employees with disabilities. Instead, it does require that preferential treatment be extended if necessary to provide employees with disability the same opportunities as employees without disabilities.
  9. The Supreme Court in Barnett talked about the value of stability and employee expectations as being the most important reason justifying the precedence of the employer’s seniority-based system over an employee’s with a disability otherwise valid right to reassignment. Such an interest must be jealously guarded as they represent an employee’s personal costly investment in their own careers.
  10. Lowe’s merit-based approach examines an employee’s record of experience and qualifications as well as their performance and interview settings.
  11. Lowe’s hiring process represents continuous effort to identify talent interdepartmentally and provide special training and attention to prime its most competent employees for promotion into the heightened responsibilities of director level positions. The process is on its face disability neutral. The process invites, rewards, and protect the formation of settled expectations regarding hiring decisions. It is also reasonable, orderly, and fundamentally fair for directing employee advancement within the company. So in the ordinary run of cases, reassignment in contravention of such a policy is not reasonable.
  12. The Eighth Circuit has held that a best qualified hiring system falls under the same principle as a seniority-based system and therefore is a perfectly reasonable approach. The 11th Circuit, which we discussed here1821866969201, has held the same.
  13. Lowe’s had several conversations with the plaintiff about alternative career opportunities. They also agreed to network on his behalf regarding any and all positions in which he might express an interest. In short, there are many examples of Lowe’s proactively working to ensure that plaintiff did not despite his disability, receive anything less than the same workplace opportunities as other employees without disabilities.
  14. Lowe’s had valid reasons for hiring other people for the jobs that plaintiff applied for.
  15. Lowe’s also encouraged plaintiff to accept a manager role. While that role would not have paid as much, the responsibilities would have been lighter and the jobs easier to obtain. Such roles could have served as a track for the plaintiff to gain new invaluable experience that would return him to the directorship level in a position more suited to his physical condition. Just because plaintiff declined that offer, does not mean that Lowe’s did not provide him meaningful opportunity to continue his working relationship with the company.

 

IV

 

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. There is clearly a Circuit Court split between the Seventh, which, as we discussed here1831877070202, demands mandatory reassignment, and the Fourth and Eleventh circuits, which say that mandatory reassignment is not called for by the ADA. The 10th Circuit in Lincoln v. BNSF Railway Co.1841887171203, comes closer to the Seventh but allows a very small out for the employer.
  2. What happens next with regards to the United States Supreme Court very much depends upon what side of the aisle you are on. If you are on the plaintiff’s side, the clear preference is to allow each Circuit to play it out. If you lose, do not take it to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, if you are on the defense side, it is certainly in your interest to petition the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari if you lose at the Circuit Court level. The reason being that there is absolutely no doubt in my mind, very little anyway, that the Supreme Court will take the view of the Fourth Circuit when it comes to mandatory reassignment for two reasons. First, people with disabilities do not fare well at the Supreme Court when it comes to employment situations. Second, the Fourth Circuit in particular, did a very nice job of offering policy reasons why reassignment should be a last resort. Given the configuration of the current Supreme Court, I think the Supreme Court by at least a 6-3 margin, if not more, will be very receptive to those policy reasons detailed in the Fourth Circuit opinion. So while as a practical matter there is a Circuit Court split, the handwriting is clearly on the wall as to what the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately decide. That means unless you are in the Seventh Circuit and you are representing an employer, you are perfectly justified in setting up a competitive system for people with disabilities when it comes to reassigning them to another job when they no longer can do their current job with or without reasonable accommodations. That said, very helpful if the employer engages in a process, as Lowe’s did, to help the employee with a disability obtain a suitable position rather than leaving it up entirely to the employee’s own devices.
  3. There are real benefits for exploring all possible accommodations as Lowe’s did. Companies that demonstrate a strong effort to accommodate a person with a disability fare very well when it comes to successfully defending failure to accommodate claims.
  4. A few other things about the opinion are interesting. First, the court does not mention the Seventh Circuit opinion1851897272204 requiring mandatory reassignment at all. Second, the court could have also said that the plaintiff was no longer qualified because they turned down perfectly reasonable accommodations. Finally, they could’ve also said that since the plaintiff essentially blew up the interactive process by turning down accommodations and creating their own outside of the interactive process system, the plaintiff loses because he blew up the interactive process.
  5. Employees do not get the right to invent their own accommodations outside of the interactive process.
  6. Employers need to document any and all efforts to engage in the interactive process.
  7. While the employer’s determination of what is an essential function of the job gets preference, it is still the day-to-day happenings on the job that ultimately matter.
  8. Transferring an employee to a lower paying job when they can no longer do their current job with the without reasonable accommodations can be a reasonable accommodation.
  9. Don’t forget about using the Job Accommodation Network1861907373205 to help sort out what accommodations are possible.

 

Be safe!

Today’s blog entry is a case from the 11th Circuit that I have blogged on before at both the Circuit Court level and the District Court level. A link to both can be found here185180191118201. On November 10, 2020, the 11th Circuit vacated their previous opinion issued back in March and re-issued another one. Since we have discussed this before, no need to go into the facts, which simply put involves a deaf individual’s inability to access legislative streaming of the Florida legislature. So, the categories for this blog entry are: court’s reasoning sovereign immunity; court’s reasoning Ex Parte Young; court’s reasoning Rehabilitation Act sovereign immunity; concurring opinion; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.

 

I

Majority Opinion ( Judge Martin)

Court’s Reasoning Sovereign Immunity

 

  1. Title II of the ADA explicitly abrogates 11th amendment immunity.
  2. Explicit abrogation of sovereign immunity isn’t enough, the legislation must also have congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end.
  3. In figuring out whether abrogation is congruent and proportional, a three-step test is used: 1) identifying what right or rights Congress sought to enforce when it enacted the ADA; 2) determining whether there was a history of unconstitutional discrimination to support Congress’s determination that prophylactic legislation was necessary; and 3) whether title II is an appropriate response to that history and pattern of unequal treatment.
  4. In a footnote, the court noted that the Supreme Court has also said, here186181192119202, that sovereign immunity can also be waived if there is an independent violation of the 14th amendment.
  5. If the identified right triggers heightened scrutiny or is deemed fundamental, then Congress has greater latitude to abrogate immunity.
  6. The 11th Circuit has held that sovereign immunity was waived where a right to education was at stake even though that particular right is not subject to heightened scrutiny. In particular, the 11th Circuit recognized that the constitutional right to equality in education, though not fundamental, is vital to the future success of our society. That is, denying persons with disabilities the right to equality in education affected their future ability to exercise and participate in the most basic rights and responsibilities of citizenship, including but not limited to voting and participation in public programs and services.
  7. It doesn’t make sense that Congress could validly abrogate sovereign immunity to protect the rights of students with disabilities to get an education but could not do the same to directly enable those students to participate in the democratic process.
  8. Defendants gave the court no plausible reason to believe that the 11th Circuit decision saying that sovereign immunity was abrogated when it came to education was wrongly decided or that its reasoning should not apply.
  9. Congress’s identification of discrimination in public services and voting establishes the necessary history for discrimination with respect to accessing public legislative information relevant to voting.
  10. Title II of the ADA provides an appropriately limited response to remedy the history of unequal treatment. The burden of adding captioning to legislative videos already provided to the public removes a complete barrier to that information and can be accomplished with limited cost and efforts. In that way, the remedy is a proportionate and reasonable modification of the service already provided and does not change the nature of the service whatsoever.
  11. If the costs or effort proved to be prohibitively burdensome, affirmative defenses under title II exist.
  12. When Congress enacted title II of the ADA, it had evidence before it that deaf people often cannot access government meetings either due to a lack of interpreters or other necessary accessibility features.
  13. Accordingly given the evidence and the limited nature of the remedy, Congress validly abrogated sovereign immunity under the standard for important rights that nonetheless receive only rational basis review.

 

II

Court’s Reasoning Ex Parte Young

 

  1. Where a plaintiff challenges a state official’s action on federal grounds, Ex Parte Young allows the plaintiff to seek prospective injunctive relief.
  2. Since the plaintiff seek an injunction based upon violations of a federal law, the ADA, the exception for not allowing a plaintiff to seek injunctive relief for violations of state law does not apply.
  3. In a footnote, the court noted that plaintiffs are not requesting any special treatment. Instead, they are requesting equal access to information to which the rest of the population already has access. So, persons with disabilities are being placed on an equal footing rather than being given an unfair advantage. In other words, plaintiffs are merely seeking equal footing with the rest of the hearing public. It certainly would be possible that the legislature could remove the links for the legislative streaming altogether. However, so long as they keep the links up they must comply with title II of the ADA by captioning those videos. Any other conclusion would allow the Florida legislature to avoid compliance with federal statutes and undermine the integrity of the statutory scheme.

 

III

Court’s Reasoning Rehabilitation Act and Sovereign Immunity

 

  1. A state waves its sovereign immunity if they receive federal financial assistance.
  2. In cases involving factual challenges to subject matter jurisdiction, the District Court must give the plaintiff an opportunity for discovery appropriate to the nature of the motion to dismiss.
  3. In the 11th amendment context, a District Court may order limited discovery before deciding whether sovereign immunity requires dismissal.
  4. The 11th Circuit generally requires that plaintiffs have an opportunity to conduct jurisdictional discovery prior to dismissal.
  5. Since this opinion says the legislative defendants are not entitled to sovereign immunity for plaintiff’s ADA claim, they are required to answer the complaint and provide discovery on plaintiff’s ADA claims.

 

IV

 

Concurring Opinion (Judge Tjoflat)

 

  1. Congress validly abrogated sovereign immunity regardless of whether the right implicated is fundamental.
  2. Plaintiffs are entitled to pursue injunctive relief under Ex Parte Young.
  3. The District Court did not adequately explain its reason for denying the Florida legislature’s motion to dismiss the Rehabilitation Act claims. Accordingly, that part of the case should be remanded to the District Court for further explanation before deciding whether to affirm its ruling.
  4. The District Court’s analysis of dismissing the motion to dismiss for the Rehabilitation Act claim was inadequate for two reasons. First, the District Court should not have suggested that it was making only a temporary ruling that might be revisited in the future because issues of immunity should be resolved at the earliest possible stage. Second, the District Court completely ignored the affidavit regarding direct financial assistance as self-serving, as all affidavits are, and it also did not mention the Florida legislature’s argument rebutting the plaintiff claims of indirect financial assistance. So, the proper course would be a limited remand on the Rehabilitation Act claim for further explanation of the District Court’s reasoning for denying the motion to dismiss the Rehabilitation Act claims. Absent more explanation, it can’t be properly decided whether the District Court abused its discretion in dismissing the claim.

 

V

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. As we have discussed previously, both sovereign immunity and equal protection claims very much depend upon what equal protection class persons with disability fall into. People with disabilities are a moving target in that respect. Unlike other groups, the equal protection class that people with disabilities fall into varies depending upon the facts of the case per this case187182193120203. So, people with disabilities are in the rational basis class with respect to employment per this case188183194121204. However, they are at least in the heightened scrutiny class if not higher when it comes to accessing the courts per this case189184195122205.
  2. Equal protection jurisprudence is incredibly divisive because it separates out people for different levels of protection depending upon their immutable characteristics, whether they are born with it or develop it later in life.
  3. For why people with disabilities may fall into a rational basis class, take a look at this case190185196123206.
  4. The equal protection classes are also a bit of a moving target because not every situation involving rational basis review results in a victory for the government when persons with disabilities are adversely affected by governmental action. That rational basis review still results in an equal protection victory for persons with disabilities may have started with City of Cleburne v Cleburne Living Center191186197124207.
  5. The 11th Circuit continues its strong trend of favoring the rights of persons with disabilities when disability rights issues come before them.
  6. I would have to do some research, but it would surprise me if every other Circuit has reached the same conclusion as the 11th Circuit with respect to education and sovereign immunity under the ADA.
  7. Undue burden is an affirmative defense.
  8. Where a defendant claims they do not receive federal financial assistance, it is perfectly within the realm of the court’s discretion to conduct limited discovery to ascertain whether that is the case.
  9. This case could conceivably head up to the United States Supreme Court. As I have mentioned before, people with disabilities frequently win before the Supreme Court when employment matters are not involved. Also, it is far from clear whether a fundamental right is not involved here. After all, accessing legislative proceedings is fundamental to being a good citizen.
  10. The placing of people with disabilities in the rational basis class in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett192187198125208 in the first place was not based on sound logic. Cleburne was ostensibly a rational basis decision, but it spent pages upon pages discussing why the discrimination by the town of Cleburne against persons with disabilities was inappropriate. You don’t usually see that in typical rational basis cases. If anything, that case might be better looked at as a rational basis plus situation. In Heller v. Doe193188199126209, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically stated that the parties had agreed that the person with disabilities in that case fell into the rational basis class. That is not to say that persons with disabilities may not have had some difficulty with a rational basis classification with respect to employment because state employers for years have been very good about hiring people with disabilities (if you are wondering why many employers have trouble retaining and hiring people with disabilities, check out this blog entry194189200127210 that I wrote for the Federal Bar Association blog) .
  11. While I have never worked with one of the attorneys on this case, Courtney Cunningham, I do stay in touch with him.
  12. I have not had a chance to check it myself, but the case gets even more interesting if the Florida legislature removed the videos from its websites (they may have already done so). If that is the case, then the question becomes whether the litigation is moot and likely to recur. I would argue that it is certainly likely to happen again.
  13. The costs for captioning in real-time or afterwards are decreasing all the time now that automatic speech recognition technology is coming into its own.

 

Colonel Johnny

Before turning to the blog entry of the day, today is Veterans Day. I want to wish everybody who fought for our country or has family that served in the military a good Veterans Day. I also want to wish everyone a happy Veterans Day.

 

The case of the day is from the Northern District of Alabama decided on July 21, 2020. It is Smith v. Morgan18067671181971186767. It is an interesting case involving a deaf individual with a service dog, a business that didn’t know what the service dog rules were but immediately leapt in to fix it when they found out what went wrong, the police, and the city attorney. I chose the case because you don’t often see service animals with respect to the deaf, though I have one. Also, it is an interesting representation of what can happen when a business races to fix the problem even when non-architectural barriers are involved. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; court’s reasoning the case is not moot; court’s reasoning that the injunction is not necessary; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the sections.

 

I

Facts (taken directly from the opinion)

 

On May 4, 2017, Amber stopped at an Exxon gas station in Hanceville, Alabama with her husband, Chad Smith, and their two kids. The Smiths regularly stop at the Hanceville Exxon when they visit Chad’s parents in the area. Chad and the kids entered the store first. Amber followed a few minutes later with her service dog, Sassy. A store employee quickly approached Amber and told her that dogs were not allowed in the store. Doc. 51-2 at 6. Amber, of course, could not understand the employee. Chad intervened and explained to the employee that Amber was deaf and that she used Sassy as her service dog. Id. The employee then demanded proof that Sassy was a service dog, to which Chad responded that it is unlawful to request a service animal’s papers. Id. At that point, the employee “got made and stormed off.” Id. The employee went to consult with another employee—Ashleigh Chaffin. Doc. 51-3 at 4. Chaffin says she had a conversation with Chad too, id. at 5, but Chad does not remember this conversation, doc. 51-2 at 6. According to Chaffin, she *4 asked Chad if he had papers to prove that Sassy was a service animal, to which Chad again replied that it was unlawful to ask for a service dog’s documentation. Doc. 51-3 at 5. Chaffin told Chad she was going to call the police for “clarification.” Id. 4 3 4 3 In her deposition, Chaffin insists that neither she nor the first employee would have asked to see Sassy’s papers; they would have asked only if Sassy had papers. Doc. 51-3 at 5, 8. That is not how Chad remembers it; he specifically remembers that the first employee wanted to see Sassy’s papers. Doc. 51-2 at 6. On a motion for summary judgment, Chad’s memory governs. Either way, the question was unlawful. See 28 C.F.R. § 36.302(c)(6). 4 In a declaration, Chaffin elaborates on her decision to call the police: “[I]t was not clear to me at the time how I was to determine if the animal was a service animal without some documentation, and I did not want to violate any health department regulations concerning the presence of animals in establishments that serve food.” Doc. 51-7 at 3. After Chaffin announced that she was calling the police, Amber and Chad approached the counter to purchase a few items from the store. Doc. 51-2 at 7. When Amber and Chad tried to pay, however, Chaffin allegedly told the cashier: “We’re not selling them anything. Don’t sell them nothing.” Id. at 8. Amber and Chad waited at the counter until the police arrived. Id. Three police officers responded to the call. Doc. 51-1 at 6. Like the employees, the police questioned whether Sassy was a service animal, and asked to see documentation. Doc. 51-2 at 10. Again, Chad responded that it is unlawful to ask to see documentation for a service animal. Id. The police decided to call the city attorney. Id. at 5 11; doc. 51-3 at 10. *5 According to Chad, the city attorney advised that the store was allowed to ask to see Sassy’s papers, and the Smiths had to produce those papers. Doc. 51-2 at 12. At that point, Amber showed the police a certificate from a website that said Sassy was a service animal. Id. Even after producing the certificate, the police forced Amber 5 2 Smith v. Morgan Civil Action Number 5:18-cv-01111… and Sassy to stay with them by the front of the store while Chad paid for their items. Id. The Smiths then left the store. The Smiths intend to return to the store, because it is the most convenient gas station when they visit Chad’s parents, but they have not yet done so. Id. at 13-14. 5 Wilson recalls that the city attorney (correctly) advised them that they could not ask for proof of a service animal. Doc. 51-4 at 9. This would be a devastating confession, since they continued to seek proof that Sassy was a service animal after receiving the city attorney’s advice. See doc. 51-3 at 7.

 

Wilson, the manager and majority-owner of the store, claims that “[i]mmediately after the Smiths left,” she looked up the law about service animals and learned that businesses “could not ask for proof that animals brought into the store were service animals.” Doc. 51-6 at 4. The Smiths promptly retained counsel, and one week after the incident they mailed a notice to preserve evidence to the defendants. Doc. 51-3 at 21. After receiving this notice, Wilson posted a sign on the store window reading, “Service Animals Welcome.” Doc. 51-4 at 5; doc. 51-3 at 10. She also printed a summary from the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) of the rules regarding service animals, and *6 placed it near the register. Doc. 51-4 at 6; Doc. 51-3 at 23-25. Furthermore, Wilson required the store’s employees to sign an agreement indicating that they had reviewed the DOJ’s summary. Doc. 51-4 at 13; doc. 51-6 at 14-28 (showing that the first employee signatures occurred on May 22, 2017). 6 6 6 Also on May 22, two of the officers who responded to the scene drafted statements memorializing their memory of the incident. Doc. 51-4 at 20-21. Either Wilson or Chaffin asked the officers to draft the statements. See doc. 51-3 at 10. The timing of the officers’ statements further corroborates that the defendants sprang into action after they received notice of legal action.

 

Plaintiff lawsuit alleged violations of the ADA and various state law claims. In particular, plaintiff asked for a declaratory judgment stating that the defendant violated the ADA as well as an injunction ordering them to modify their policies and practices to be consistent with the ADA to allow her full and equal access to the store. Defendants moved to dismiss the ADA claims arguing that the claims were now moot because they had changed their policy to comply with the law. The court denied that motion and the defendants moved for summary judgment.

 

II

 

Court’s Reasoning the Case Is Not Moot

 

  1. A case is not generally mooted when a defendant voluntarily ceases a challenged conduct.
  2. Voluntary cessation only moots a case where the defendant meets the heavy burden of showing that it is absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.
  3. In the 11th Circuit, three factors are considered with respect to the probability of recurrence and they are: 1) whether the challenged conduct was isolated or unintentional as opposed to a continuing and deliberate practice; 2) whether the defendant’s cessation of the offending conduct was motivated by a genuine change of heart or timed to anticipate suit; and 3) whether in ceasing the conduct, the defendant has acknowledged liability.
  4. While the defendant admitted they asked customers with service animals for documentation in the past, at the time defendant did not know the ADA prohibited asking such questions. Therefore, the challenged conduct was continuing but unintentional.
  5. Evidence shows that it was not until after the defendant received notice of a potential lawsuit that they posted the sign welcoming service animals and required employee to sign the agreement acknowledging familiarity with the rules concerning service animals. Therefore, defendants’ actions were motivated by the impending lawsuit. Reform timed to anticipate or blunt the force of a lawsuit offers insufficient assurances that the practice sought to be enjoined will not be repeated.
  6. The defendants explicitly conceded that they cannot ask for documentation of a service animal, and that they must provide persons with disabilities full and equal access to the store. As such, that gives the court little reason to fear future injury.
  7. The main bulwark against recurrence of the requirement is that new employees read DOJ’s summary of the law regarding service animals. That is hardly a foolproof solution. Defendants testified that the store has a lot of turnover. All it takes for this bulwark to fail is one new employee falsely claiming to have read the summary or the store forgets to tell an employee about the policy. After all, defendants have consistently argued that most people have no idea you cannot ask for a service animal’s papers. So, it is entirely conceivable that the defendant could also grow weary of the policy and simply revert to their own practice. As such, telling the court that the challenged conduct no longer exist in disclaiming any intention to revive the practice is not enough to moot the case.

 

III

Court’s Reasoning That an Injunction Is Not Necessary

 

  1. Evidence shows that the defendant violated the ADA unknowingly.
  2. Evidence indicates that the defendants intend to respect the law regarding service animals going forward.
  3. Plaintiff has not presented any evidence challenging the defendant’s evidence that they have followed the laws since there encounter with her.
  4. Where the court to issue an injunction, it would not order the defendant to do more than they already doing.
  5. The analysis of whether a declaratory judgment is warranted is the same as the analysis for an injunction. After all, courts are not in the business of pronouncing past actions that have no demonstrable continuing effect right or wrong.

 

IV

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. The defendant claimed that she could not be held individually liable as the ADA does not provide for individual liability. However, the defendant was the 60% owner of the store and therefore, she can be held liable under the ADA as the owner of the place of public accommodation.
  2. In the summary section before Judge Kallon gets into his facts and reasoning, he says that a place of public accommodation can only ask two limited questions when it comes to service animals: 1) is the animal required because of a disability; and 2) what work or tasks the animal has been trained to perform. The two questions are correct but saying that only those two limited question can be asked is not. If you look at 28 C.F.R. §36.30218168681191981196868(c)(6), you see that the phrase used is “two inquiries,” and not two questions. Inquiries are a broader category than questions.
  3. This is not an architectural barrier case. However, the case shows how fixing the problem promptly can forestall liability even in a non-architectural barrier case.
  4. You don’t see a lot of service animals with respect to the deaf, but they absolutely exist. I was talking to a person who is deaf recently and familiar with service dogs and the deaf. She told me that with respect to the deaf who have service dogs, they are commonly used in the house and not outside. It was nice to hear that I am not the only deaf person using my service dog in that way.
  5. I am not sure I follow why a declaratory judgment was not in order even though an injunction was not. The violation of the ADA was crystal clear. If the court had granted the declaratory judgment, then plaintiff would have been able to obtain attorney fees as the prevailing party even as the court denied the injunction. I am not sure why the declaratory judgment decision and the injunction decision necessarily have to be the same. I would love to see comments from readers doing litigation on the question of whether a declaratory judgment and an injunction must move in lockstep with each other.
  6. By using the search engine for my blog, you can find lots of relevant entries with respect to service animals, such as here18269691201991206969.
  7. Excellent move by the police getting the city attorney involved. Apparently, the city attorney made the right call.
  8. Ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but in this case it helped the defendant escape liability, especially since they raced to fix the problem once they were aware of their noncompliance.
  9. It is unclear what the court is referring to when it talks about the DOJ summary that the defendant has its employees read. Are they talking about the DOJ frequently asked questions document or something else? If they are talking about the frequently asked questions document, that document contradicts its final regulations with respect to whether the questions are limited to only two in number or whether it is inquiries that are limited to two in number. Under Kisor v. Wilkie18370701212001217070, discussed here, final regulations will prevail over a frequently asked questions document.
  10. Police forces definitely need training on the service animal rules for title III entities. In this case, the police mistakes with respect to what the law are required were alleviated by the city attorney. The lesson there is always get knowledgeable legal counsel involved when necessary and the earlier you do so the better.

Before starting on the blog entry of the day, if you have not already voted do so. Today’s blog entry is a case, Exby-Stolley v. Board of County Commissioners, Weld County, Colorado17918111819811820567, that I blogged on almost 2 years ago. About two years ago, the 10th Circuit came down with a decision, which I discussed here18018211919911920668, holding that failure to accommodate claims required an adverse action. It turns out that the panel decision was reheard by the entire 10th Circuit. On October 28, 2020, it vacated the panel decision, reversed the District Court’s judgment, and remanded for a new trial. It is a 135 page decision complete with a majority opinion and two dissenting opinions. No need to cover the facts since we discussed all of that in the previous blog entry, here18118312020012020769. So, the categories for this blog entry are: majority opinion (Judge Holmes); thoughts/takeaways on the majority opinion; dissenting opinion (Judge McHugh); thoughts/takeaways on Judge McHugh’s dissenting opinion; dissenting opinion (Judge Hartz); and thought/takeaways on Judge Hartz’s dissenting opinion). Of course, the reader is free to read any or all of the categories.

 

I

Majority Opinion Holding That a Failure to Accommodate Claim Does Not Require an Adverse Action (Judge Holmes)

 

  1. The language “adverse employment action,” does not expressly appear in the plain terms of the failure to accommodate statutory provision nor in the general rule of 42 U.S.C. §1211218218412120112120870(a).
  2. A court cannot add language to a statute’s plain text.
  3. Requiring adverse action for failure to accommodate claims is at odds with pre-existing 10th Circuit precedent; EEOC’s views; and regularly followed practices of all of the other Circuits.
  4. Prior 10th Circuit precedent has repeatedly and invariably talked about the prima facie case for an ADA failure to accommodate claim without mentioning adverse employment action requirements.
  5. The 10th Circuit has made clear that articulations of the prima facie case for failure to accommodate claim exhaustively details the essential elements of that claim.
  6. It must be that the reason 10th Circuit cases omit the adverse employment action element from their comprehensive statements of the prima facie case for ADA failure to accommodate claims is because no such element exist in ADA failure to accommodate claims.
  7. When a cause of action requires an adverse employment action, courts are not shy to say as much.
  8. Failure to accommodate claims are a freestanding claim of discrimination based upon a failure to meet an affirmative duty. Title VII has no such freestanding claim.
  9. Prior cases have specifically mentioned that an adverse employment action is not an element of failure to accommodate claims when discussing other statutes where an adverse employment action was a requirement.
  10. On multiple occasions, the 10th Circuit has stated that the ADA establishes a cause of action for employees with disabilities whose employer failed to reasonably accommodate them. That general statement says nothing about the need for employees with disabilities to also demonstrate an adverse employment action before their failure to accommodate claim will be viable.
  11. The duty to make reasonable accommodations is an affirmative unvarnished obligation of the employer. Accordingly, it is hard to imagine that a federal statute placing an affirmative or unvarnished obligation on the employer would allow the employer to escape consequences for breaching that obligation so long as that employer does not take some additional adverse action. Accordingly, the court is disinclined to read the ADA in such an unnatural manner.
  12. In prior discussions of the overarching feature of the ADA discrimination claim, the 10th Circuit has made clear that an ADA failure to accommodate claim does not contain adverse employment action requirements.
  13. Prior 10th Circuit cases have made clear that in failure to accommodate claims as soon as the employer with adequate notice of the employee with a disability request for some accommodation failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, that is the point in time where the employer has discriminated against an individual with a disability because of his or her disability.
  14. So, 10th Circuit precedent is such that once a plaintiff has established an employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate the disability, plaintiff does not need to go further and establish they also suffered an adverse employment action.
  15. Disparate treatment claims and failure to accommodate claims are two different kettles of fish. Disparate treatment claims do require an adverse action but failure to accommodate claims do not because the two types of claims are very different from each other. In disparate treatment claims the allegation is that the employer acted. On the other hand, in failure to accommodate claims, the allegation is the employer failed to act.
  16. The ADA’s reasonable accommodation mandate focuses on compelling behavior rather than policing an employer’s actions. Accordingly, it makes little sense to require the showing of an adverse employment action as part of a failure to accommodate claim. That is, it verges on the illogical to require failure to accommodate plaintiffs to establish their employer acted adversely toward them when the fundamental nature of the claim is that the employer failed to act.
  17. Since failure to accommodate claims concern discrimination in the form of a failure to meet an affirmative obligation, there is no action that must be shown to have been taken with any particular intent. That is, once an employee makes an adequate request for an accommodation thereby putting the employer on notice, an employer’s failure to offer reasonable accommodation to a qualified person with a disability is unlawful discrimination regardless of whether the employer had any intent to do so.
  18. Introducing an adverse employment action requirement into an ADA failure to accommodate claim would significantly frustrate the ADA’s remedial purposes.
  19. The purpose of the ADA to promote full participation and equal opportunity for people with disabilities are effectuated in meaningful part by the affirmative obligation the ADA imposes on employers to make a reasonable accommodation.
  20. The ADA requires preferences in the form of reasonable accommodations needed for those with disabilities to obtain the same workplace opportunity as those without disabilities automatically enjoy.
  21. The reasonable accommodation requirement is best understood as a means by which the barriers to the equal employment opportunity of an individual with a disability are removed or alleviated.
  22. Reasonable accommodations provide the individual with disabilities an equal employment opportunity. Equal employment opportunity means the opportunity to attain the same level of performance or to enjoy the same level of benefits and privileges of employment as are available to the average similarly situated employee without a disability.
  23. The purposes and the ability of the ADA’s reasonable accommodation mandate to promote disability inclusion would be significantly frustrated by including an adverse employment action as a necessary element of a failure to accommodate claim. That is, it would allow for employers not being held accountable for failing to reasonably accommodate their employees with disabilities so long as an adverse employment action was also not involved. How could the ADA’s reasonable accommodation mandate meaningfully ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities denied a reasonable accommodation obtain the same workplace opportunity as those with disabilities automatically enjoy and enjoy the same level of benefits and privileges of employment as people without disabilities, if the statute mandates that such individuals only get a remedy when their employers have also subjected them to an adverse employment action. The very asking of the question is the answer of it. The answer is simply no. The ADA could not meaningfully effectuate its full participation and equal opportunity purposes with an adverse employment action requirement.
  24. Imagine a judge of the 10th Circuit (emphasis mine), hires a blind law clerk who can with without accommodations can only write two draft judicial opinion per month. Also, assume that the widely accepted standard for a successful law clerk is one who can write three draft judicial opinions per month and the blind law clerk can reach that level with the help of a reasonable accommodation. Also assume that a qualified low-wage personal reader would constitute a reasonable accommodation under the ADA and that such a reader would not impose an undue hardship on the office operations of the blind law clerk’s employer. Further, imagine that the judge denies the blind law clerk’s request for this assumed reasonable modification and refuses to discuss any other possible reasonable accommodation by telling the law clerk that drafting two opinions per month will be just fine even though the other judge’s law clerk regularly meet the three opinion monthly target. Such an employee has suffered no adverse employment action and would not have a claim if an adverse employment action requirement was layered onto failure to accommodate claims. That doesn’t make any sense because that law clerk would not be a full participant or fully included in a service, program, or activity because they cannot utilize the program, service, or activity in a similar way as person without disabilities. Further, that law clerk has been prevented from competing on an equal basis with their fellow law clerk who do not have disabilities and enjoying the same level or privileges of employment as those law clerks. The court is simply unwilling to adopt a reading of the ADA’s failure to accommodate mandate that yields such a result.
  25. An interpretation of the ADA’s failure to accommodate claims that would permit a result where an employee is denied an opportunity to compete on an equal basis with her fellow employees and pursue those opportunity for which America is justifiably famous is a result to be avoided.
  26. The unvarnished obligation to accommodate a qualified person with the disability makes any adverse employment action irrelevant.
  27. The ADA is not simply concerned with shielding individuals with disabilities from significant workplace harms but also with reasonably accommodating limitations of their disabilities so they may provide the nation with the benefit of their consequently increased productivity.
  28. The ADA’s objective is to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities are placed on equal grounds with other employees in regards to the covered employment relationship.
  29. In the 10th Circuit, a person with a disability has a right to a reassignment rather than the right to be considered for a reassignment where the employee is no longer able to do the original job with or without reasonable accommodations. Requiring an adverse action would make a mockery of the right to reassignment cases.
  30. The ADA simply cannot be read to require that employees with disabilities are only allowed to receive accommodations if they also suffer an adverse employment action. Such a construction of the statute significantly restricts the scope of the ADA’s reasonable accommodation obligation through the use of language (adverse employment action), that does not even appear in the statute’s text.
  31. The EEOC has also made it clear that failure to accommodate claims do not require an adverse action.
  32. 29 C.F.R. §1630.918318512220212220971(a) not only omits any mention of an adverse employment action component but also implicitly rejects by this omission the notion that such a component of failure to accommodate claims even exists.
  33. Indeed, absent an undue hardship, the regulation explains that a covered entity violates the ADA by not reasonably accommodating an employee with a disability. Full stop (court’s words).
  34. EEOC regulations implementing title I of the ADA are entitled to a great deal of deference.
  35. EEOC’s interpretive guidance on the ADA are a body of experience and informed judgment to which courts and litigants may properly resort to for guidance. Those guidances omit any mention of an adverse employment action requirement for ADA failure to accommodate claims.
  36. Nowhere in the EEOC’s interpretive guidance extensive discussion of reasonable accommodation claims is there any discussion of reasonable accommodation claims requiring some form of an adverse employment action.
  37. The EEOC notes in its enforcement guidance that the duty to provide reasonable accommodations is a fundamental statutory requirement.
  38. When the EEOC in it guidances discusses the burdens of proof, nowhere is there any mention of the employee needing to show an adverse employment action before the proof burden shifts to the employer.
  39. In the instruction for investigator section of the EEOC guidance, an extensive set of questions investigator should inquire into while assessing whether an employee has violated the ADA by denying a reasonable accommodation is discussed. However, none of those questions relate to an adverse employment action.
  40. None of the other Circuits have regularly incorporated an adverse employment action requirement into ADA failure to accommodate claims. That is, either the Circuits have declined to incorporate an adverse employment action requirement into an ADA failure to accommodate claim or they have incorporated such a requirement in name only because the failure to accommodate is an adverse action in and of itself.
  41. The First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, 11th, and the D.C. Circuit either state or strongly suggest that no adverse employment action requirement in ADA failure to accommodation claims exist.
  42. The Third and the Eighth Circuits have an adverse employment action requirement into their failure to accommodate claims. However, that is in name only because a failure to accommodate is an adverse action. Cases suggesting that an adverse employment action is an additional requirement for failure to accommodate claims, including one-Samper- that we discussed here18418612320312321072 on a separate issue, are outliers.
  43. The incorporation of 42 U.S.C. §12112(a)’s terms, conditions, and privileges employment language into an ADA failure to accommodate claim is unnecessary because a failure to accommodate claim necessarily implicates and provides particularized concrete expression of terms, conditions, and privileges of employment language. In other words, a failure to accommodate claim as a matter of logic and common sense necessarily involves a qualified person with a disability terms, condition, and privileges of employment. So, it is simply unnecessary for court to expressly incorporate terms, conditions, and privileges of employment language into an ADA failure to accommodate claim.
  44. Adverse employment action as understood by precedent is not the same thing as terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.
  45. Even if a court desired to take into account terms, conditions, and probative of employment language of §12112(a) in failure to accommodate claims, that is not the same thing as imposing an adverse employment action requirement.
  46. 42 U.S.C. §1211218518712420412421173(b) is inextricably intertwined with 42 U.S.C. §12112(a)’s general rule because it underscores that a covered employer cannot discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability while at the same time particularrizing and making concrete what that means through examples of what is prohibited disability discrimination in the employment context.
  47. 42 U.S.C. §12112(b) enumerated examples give concrete expression to areas of discriminatory conduct against qualified individuals with disabilities referenced in 42 U.S.C. §12112(a). As such, those example necessarily are in regard to those individual terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.
  48. Terms, conditions, and privileges of employment are part and parcel of any ADA failure to accommodate claim. Accordingly, expressly incorporating that language into failure to accommodate claims is unnecessary.
  49. Terms, conditions, and privileges of employment language in title VII serve to combat the entire spectrum of workplace discrimination. A Supreme Court decision saying as much was decided fully five years before the ADA came into effect. Accordingly, Congress is presumed to know what the phrase meant when it passed the law.
  50. The court is simply unwilling to equate language signaling the expansive sweep of the ADA’s employment related antidiscrimination mandate with an adverse employment action.
  51. Undue hardship is an affirmative defense.

 

II

Thoughts/Takeaways on Majority Opinion

 

  1. It is absolutely and completely strange to me that both the majority opinion and the dissent argued over the ADA’s applicability to a failure to accommodate a federal law clerk’s disability because neither the ADA nor the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to the federal courts. I am at a loss as to how such a mistake could be made. The majority discussion of this hypothetical also impose its title II language (“program, services, and activities)”, onto a title I case, which I also find odd. Title I and title II have very different statutory provisions, final implementing regulations, guidances, and two different agencies implementing the ADA.
  2. Failure to accommodate is a separate cause of action under the ADA. That statement has significant implications for claims focusing on the interactive process because a failure to accommodate pretty much presumes a failure of the interactive process or the lack thereof.
  3. Undue burden is an affirmative defense.
  4. The possible ADA claims in a particular case are: disparate treatment; disparate impact; and failure to accommodate.
  5. If there a Circuit Court split? The majority opinion by talking about how an adverse action is an element in some Circuits in name only may be an attempt to get around a Circuit Court split. I am not sure how they get around Samper.
  6. Even though Samper is an outlier with respect to the prima facie elements of a failure to accommodate claim, I still really like the case with respect to trying to figure out whether attendance is an essential element of the job.
  7. What will the Supreme Court do? At Justice Barrett’s confirmation hearing, a blind attorney talked about how critical it was for her to have Justice Barrett help her navigate the law school’s reasonable accommodation process. Accordingly, Justice Barrett may be very attuned to how the failure to accommodate to a person with a disability is itself an adverse action.
  8. The ADA is an equal opportunity driven statute. I have always liked the starting line analogy. That is, it is up to the covered entity to get the person with the disability to the same starting line as those without disabilities. After that, it is up to the person with a disability to demonstrate what he or she can do.
  9. The 10th Circuit is one of those jurisdictions where a person no longer qualified to do his current job has the right to be reassigned to another.
  10. EEOC final regulations get Chevron deference. That doesn’t surprise me in light of Chevron v. Echazabal18618812520512521274.
  11. Essentially the majority opinion offers two ways for a court to say that an additional adverse action is not required in failure to accommodate cases: 1) the scheme of the ADA and its provisions; and 2) a failure to accommodate is an adverse action by itself.
  12. In light of Kisor v. Wilkie, discussed here18718912620612621375, it will be interesting to see how much deference the EEOC guidances mentioned in the majority opinion receive.

 

III

Judge McHugh’s Dissenting Opinion

 

  1. The qualification that discrimination must be with regard to job application procedures, hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, condition, and privileges of employment necessarily requires an additional adverse action beyond the failure to accommodate.
  2. Congress not expanding 42 U.S.C. §12112(b) when it expanded §12112(a) means that the actions in §12112(b) do not satisfy the in regard to clause.
  3. The majority opinion essentially does away with the in regard to clause.
  4. Prior decisions that the 10th Circuit are bound by does not resolve the question of whether failure to accommodate claims require an additional adverse action. The one Supreme Court case dealing with failure to accommodate claims, U.S Airways Inc. v. Barnett18819012720712721476, involved in adverse employment action. So, no controlling law from the Supreme Court exist on the question.
  5. While it is true that many cases often fail to expressly include an adverse employment action as an element of the prima facie case, the reasoning of those decisions make clear that an adverse employment action is an element of those claims.
  6. The distinction between acting and failure to act doesn’t excuse applying the statute’s plain language.
  7. A failure to act situation could easily require an adverse action.
  8. Congress did not intend to create a super human resources department to dictate an employer’s conduct irrespective of its impact.
  9. In most failure to accommodate cases, the failure to accommodate adversely impacts the conditions of employment.
  10. That the failure to accommodate must be in regard to the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment necessarily means an adverse action has to be present.
  11. With respect to the hypothetical of the law clerk, the judge’s decision to allocate work in chambers with consideration for the law clerk’s limitations is not and should not be actionable under the ADA.
  12. Congress could have made all failures to accommodate actionable. However they did not do so. Instead Congress directed that only failures in regards to the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment trigger liability under the ADA.
  13. The in regard to language strikes the appropriate balance between protection of employees with disabilities and deference to the business decisions of employers.
  14. The in regard to language is ambiguous. Therefore, the EEOC regulations cannot be said to have provided an interpretation of that language entitled to Chevron deference.
  15. The EEOC guidance documents are not entitled to any deference [Kisor] either.
  16. The in regard to clause and similar language in title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Judge McHugh said the ADA was based upon that law), strongly suggest that an additional adverse action requirement is mandated.
  17. The decisions requiring an adverse action in failure to accommodate cases were first on the board and therefore should be followed subsequently.
  18. Title VII has failure to accommodate claims in the context of disparate treatment claims with respect to religious practices. In those situations, adverse action is required.
  19. Failure to accommodate under the ADA is a freestanding discrimination claim.
  20. Hostile work environment claims also require adverse employment action.
  21. An adverse employment action can be a situation where there is a constructive alteration in the terms or conditions of employment.
  22. The in regard to clause means that discrimination must be in regard to the employment related aspect covered by §12112(a) and must cause more than de minimus harm.
  23. In the blind law clerk hypothetical, if the judge reduced the blind law clerk’s pay by one third, the failure to provide reasonable accommodation would be in regard to his or her employee compensation and would be actionable as an adverse action under the ADA. On the other hand, if the judge does not provide a reasonable accommodation but also does not take any disciplinary action against the blind clerk, the judge’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation was not in regard to the covered aspect of employment. Similarly, if the judge terminated the blind law clerk for breaches of chamber confidentiality, then the judge has similarly has not failed to provide a reasonable accommodation in regards to employment.
  24. With respect to the blind law clerk hypothetical, if a hostile work environment ensued due to the accommodation, the blind law clerk would have a claim.
  25. Failure to accommodate claims should be analyzed under whether the failure to provide reasonable accommodation was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms or conditions of employment.
  26. While the jury instruction was too narrow because the in regard to clause covers a significantly greater swath of employment than those reflected in tangible employment actions, that does not mean there was prejudicial error by the jury instruction.

 

IV

Thoughts/Takeaways on Judge McHugh’s Dissenting Opinion

 

  1. See ¶ II 1. I don’t follow how such a glaring error is possible with respect to the applicability of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to the federal judiciary. The decision does mean state courts should be on notice of the ADA’s applicability to them.
  2. The ADA is not based upon title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The ADA is based upon the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, whose remedies are hooked into title VI of the Civil Rights Act and not title VII.
  3. Failure to accommodate is a freestanding ADA claim. See also paragraph ¶ II2.
  4. If failure to accommodate claims are handled under the hostile work environment standards, many fewer people with disabilities will be able to receive reasonable accommodations. They will also have a much more difficult time of challenging the failure to receive reasonable accommodations when the employer does not grant the reasonable accommodations. Hostile work environment standards, as we have discussed previously18919112820812821577, are very difficult for a plaintiff to meet.
  5. Fear of adverse action is a major reason why persons with disabilities are very reticent about disclosing their disability. For a discussion of why that is the case, see this blog entry that I wrote for the Federal Bar Association blog, here19019212920912921678.

 

V

Judge Hartz’s Dissenting Opinion

 

  1. The 10th Circuit should refrain from discussing what is an adverse employment action because the issue was not raised before the panel or in the panel opinions. It also was not raised in any briefing on the meaning of adverse employment action for the Circuit en banc either.
  2. While an adverse employment action jury instruction may not have been necessary, it still can be useful, especially where the absence of an adverse employment action frees the jury from having to determine whether the employer acted unreasonably in failing to make the accommodation.
  3. None of the cases cited in the majority opinion are binding upon the 10th Circuit sitting as a whole. Further, those opinions are sorely lacking in their persuasiveness as none of those cases explain why there is no adverse action requirement.
  4. The government at oral argument forcibly confirmed that the in regard to language applied to failure to accommodate claims.
  5. The majority opinion runs the risk of making a federal case of every incident of discrimination in the workplace, including failures to accommodate.

 

VI

Thoughts/Takeaways on Judge Hartz’s Dissenting Opinion

 

I don’t see a disconnect between the majority opinion and saying that the in regard to clause applies. The debate among the majority and the dissenting opinions is whether the in regard to clause creates a separate adverse action requirement. That can be argued either way. It can also be argued that a failure to accommodate is an adverse action in and of itself. Certainly, anybody with a disability, including myself, who has gone through the accommodation process would certainly argue that the failure to accommodate is an adverse action that changes things for the worse  with respect to accessing his or her employment, accessing a public entity, or accessing a public entity.

We now have a new Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. For those interested in how she might rule on disability rights matters, see this blog entry1821206969198. Today’s blog entry came to me from my involvement with the Federal Bar Association civil rights section. Caryl  Oberman, a Pennsylvania attorney exclusively focusing on special education law, alerted me to this case. It isn’t a disability rights case per se. However, it applies to anyone, which of course includes persons with disabilities, in a public school. Also, it isn’t unusual for me to write unconstitutional law with respect to people with disabilities. The case of the day is B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District1831217070199, 964 F.3d 170 (3d Cir. 2020), decided on June 30, 2020. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; First Amendment protection; punishment of student violated First Amendment; views from other courts and why a legal principle must be established; the Third Circuit approach and the policies behind it; student did not waive free speech rights; concurring and dissenting opinion; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to read any or all of the categories.

 

I

Facts

 

B.L. is a student at Mahanoy Area High School (MAHS). As a rising freshman, she tried out for cheerleading and made junior varsity. The next year, she was again placed on JV. To add insult to injury, an incoming freshman made the varsity team.

B.L. was frustrated: She had not advanced in cheerleading, was unhappy with her position on a private softball team, and was anxious about upcoming exams. So one Saturday, while hanging out with a friend at a local store, she decided to vent those frustrations. She took a photo of herself and her friend with their middle fingers raised and posted it to her Snapchat story. The snap was visible to about 250 “friends,” many of whom were MAHS students and some of whom were cheerleaders, and it was accompanied by a puerile caption: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” To that post, B.L. added a second: “Love how me and [another student] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but that’s [sic] doesn’t matter to anyone else?.”

One of B.L.’s teammates took a screenshot of her first snap and sent it to one of MAHS’s two cheerleading coaches. That coach brought the screenshot to the attention of her co-coach, who, it turned out, was already in the know: “Several students, both cheerleaders and non-cheerleaders,”had approached her, “visibly upset,” to “express their concerns that [B.L.’s] [s]naps were inappropriate.”

The coaches decided B.L.’s snap violated team and school rules, which B.L. had acknowledged before joining the team, requiring cheerleaders to “have respect for [their] school, coaches, … [and] other cheerleaders”; avoid “foul language and inappropriate gestures”; and refrain from sharing “negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches … on the internet.” They also felt B.L.’s snap violated a school rule requiring student athletes to “conduct[] themselves in such a way that the image of the Mahanoy School District would not be tarnished in any manner.” So the coaches removed B.L. from the JV team. B.L. and her parents appealed that decision to the athletic director, school principal, district superintendent, and school board. But to no avail: Although school authorities agreed B.L. could try out for the team again the next year, they upheld the coaches’ decision for that year.

II

First Amendment Protection

 

  1. Supreme Court jurisprudence reveals that students First Amendment rights are subject to narrow limitations when speaking in the school context but are coextensive with those of an adult outside that context.
  2. A schoolyard’s physical boundaries are not necessarily coextensive with the school context.
  3. School officials may not reach into a child’s phone and control his or her actions to the same extent they can control that child when he or she participates in school sponsored activities. To do otherwise would twist Supreme Court jurisprudence limited accommodation of the special characteristics of the school environment into a broad rule restricting free speech of all young people who happen to be enrolled in public school.
  4. The digital revolution has made it very difficult to separate on from off-campus speech.
  5. While updating the line between on and off-campus speech may be difficult, it is still a task that must be done.
  6. A student’s online speech is not rendered on campus simply because it is about the school, mentions teachers or administrators, is shared with or accessible to students, or reaches the school environment. That principle was true before the digital age and remains true in the digital age.
  7. The student’s post on Snapchat easily falls outside the school context for several reasons. First, the relevant speech did not take place in the school sponsored forum. Second, the relevant speech did not take place in the context bearing the imprimatur of the school. Third, the place where the speech was posted was not one where the school owned or operated the online platform. Instead, the post was created on snap away from campus, over the weekend, without school resources, and shared on a social media platform unaffiliated with the school.
  8. Mere mention of the school and that it reached school officials and students is not enough for the court to hold that the speech occurred on campus.

III

Punishment of Student Violated the First Amendment

  1. The free speech rights of students are not limited to matters of public concern.
  2. Schools cannot punish students for speech in an area traditionally beyond regulation. Those concerns are equally valid where school seek to control student speech using even modest measures, much less participation in extracurricular activities, which are an important part of the educational program.

IV

Views from Other Courts and Why a Legal Principle Must Be Established

  1. Social media has continued its expansion in every corner of modern life. Even so, courts are completely without guidance when it comes to figuring out permissible lines of student speech.
  2. Courts take various approaches in trying to figure out when students speech can be regulated by the school.
  3. The approach of the Second Circuit is whether it is reasonably foreseeable that a student’s off-campus speech reaches the school environment.
  4. The Fourth Circuit takes the approach of asking the question whether off-campus speech has a sufficient nexus to the school’s pedagogical interests.
  5. Other Circuits use a case-by-case analysis.
  6. The reasonable foreseeability test doesn’t work in the digital age for the following reasons: 1) when a student speaks in the modern public square of the Internet, it is highly possible, if not a virtual certainty, that her speech will be viewed by fellow students and accessible from the school; 2) depending upon the privacy settings favored by the student’s friends or followers, her message will automatically pop up on the face of classmates phones in the form of notifications from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or any number of other social platforms; and 3) accepting that the Internet and social media have expanded the authority of the school to regulate the speech of students is not an assumption that can be accepted because it subverts the long-standing principle that heightened authority over student speech is the exception and not the rule.
  7. The nexus test doesn’t work either. The problem that test suffers from is that it erases the dividing line between speech in the school context and beyond it, a line vital to young people’s free-speech rights. The nexus test also raises the possibility of school officials asserting the power to regulate any student speech that interferes with the school’s educational mission, a power that can be easily manipulated in dangerous ways.
  8. None of the approaches taken by the other Circuits provide any clarity or predictability.

V

The Third Circuit Approach and The Policies behind It

  1. Schools do not have the authority to regulate off-campus speech.
  2. Off-campus speech is speech outside school owned, operated, or supervised channels that is not reasonably interpreted as bearing the school’s endorsement.
  3. The school’s ability to restrict the speech of students makes sense when a student stands in the school context and has a captive audience of his peers. However, it makes little sense where the student stands outside that context given that any effect on the school environment depends upon others choices and reactions.
  4. New communicative technologies open new territories where regulators might seek to suppress speech they consider inappropriate, uncouth, or provocative. Such efforts cannot be permitted regardless of their intentions without sacrificing the precious freedoms protected by the First Amendment.
  5. The consensus in the analog era was that controversial off-campus speech was not subject to school regulation, and that is an important principle to adhere to even as speech moves online.
  6. Holding off-campus speech off limits to school regulation has the advantage of offering upfront clarity to students and to school officials. Such a principal allows both students and school official to determine when they are subject to the authority of the school and when they are not.
  7. A test based upon the likelihood that speech reaches the school environment fails to provide that clarity. The same goes for whether a sufficient nexus exists.
  8. The scope of a test on whether speech occurs in the context owned, controlled, or sponsored by the school is much more easily applied and understood.
  9. The school still has the authority under this decision to deal with any student who shares or reacts to controversial off-campus speech in a disruptive manner.
  10. This case did not involve off-campus speech threatening violence or harassing particular students or teachers. Such a case raises different concerns and may well come out differently under the First Amendment.
  11. Both the U.S. Constitution and American history say that it is important that vulgar, uncouth, or, offensive speech be beyond the powers of schools to regulate because openness is the very basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans growing up in a relatively permissive and highly contentious society.
  12. Careful lines of the authority of schools to regulate student speech is no less vital in today’s digital age in order to ensure adequate breathing room for valuable and robust speech.

VI

The Student Did Not Waive Her Free-Speech Rights

  1. The school had a rule stating: “please have respect for your school, coaches, teachers, other cheerleaders and teams. Remember, you are representing your school when at games, fundraisers, and other events. Good sportsmanship will be enforced; this includes foul language and inappropriate gestures.”
  2. The plain language of the rule suggests that it applies only at games, fundraisers, and other events.
  3. The rule would not cover speech or a post the snapshot unconnected with any game or school event and before the cheerleading season even began.
  4. A student would not believe she was waiving all rights to insult the school once safely off-campus and in the world at large. In fact, the rule doesn’t say anything about not being able to use foul language or inappropriate gestures away from school.
  5. The school had another rule saying that participation on an athletic team or cheerleading squad meant that the participants could not tarnish the school in any manner and that they would be subject to discipline if they did so. However, that rule fails for two reasons. First, it applies only during the sports season, but the student in this case posted her post after the previous season had ended and before practices for the next season began. Second, the language of the rule does not give clear markers applying where a student behavior would tarnish the school’s image in any manner. Such language is too dependent on the whims of school officials to give rise to a knowing and voluntary waiver of the student’s rights.
  6. The primary responsibility for teaching civility rest with parents and other members of the community.
  7. As arms of the state, public schools have an interest in teaching civility by example through persuasion and encouragement, but they cannot leverage the coercive power to do so. Otherwise, school administrators would be given the power to quash student expression deemed crude or offensive, which far too easily become the power to censor valuable speech and legitimate criticism.
  8. Enforcing the Constitution’s limits on upholding free-speech rights creates a deeper and more enduring version of respect for civility and the hazardous freedoms that is our national treasure and the basis of American national strength.

VII

Concurring and Dissenting Opinion (Judge Ambro)

  1. Judge Ambro agrees that the student prevails but, he disagrees with the majority holding that schools do not have the authority to regulate student speech done off-campus where such speech substantially disrupts the work and discipline of the school.
  2. This case is the first Circuit to hold that Supreme Court jurisprudence does not apply to off-campus speech. No other Circuit has come up with such a categorical assertion.
  3. The majority decision leave too many questions unanswered, such as: 1) how does the holding apply to off-campus racially charged student speech?; 2) can a school discipline a student who post off-campus Snapchat’s reenacting and mocking the victims of police violence where those Snapchat’s are not related to school, not taken a posted on campus, do not overtly threatened violence, do not target any specific individual but yet provoke significant disruptions within the school?

VIII

Thoughts/Takeaways

  1. This case is likely to go to the United States Supreme Court considering how the Circuits are all over the place. As mentioned at the very top of this blog entry, we now have a new Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. I have absolutely no idea how the United States Supreme Court with its new configuration will deal with this issue. This case doesn’t necessarily break down into convenient ideological lines.
  2. Even with this decision, a public school’s reach may still extend to off-campus speech where the speech involves: 1) a school sponsored form; 2) use of the school brand; or 3) school owned or operated online platform.
  3. I can see how the Third Circuit could say that the reasonable foreseeability test and the nexus test are not workable approaches. For example, in the world of Internet accessibility litigation, cases are all over the place as to what constitutes a sufficient nexus.
  4. Off-campus speech per this decision is speech done outside school owned, operated, or supervised channels that is not reasonably interpreted at bearing the school’s endorsement.
  5. The decision is very policy driven, which is not something you see all the time and certainly not to this extent.
  6. Unclear as to what “reacting in a disruptive manner,” means.
  7. Regardless of where the speech occurs, threatening violence and engaging in harassment are still off-limits.
  8. Broad restrictions on speech going to the image of the public school are going to be difficult to enforce.

It will be interesting to follow how this case shakes out at the United States Supreme Court.

Before getting started with the blog entry of the day, I want to congratulate the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers for getting to the World Series. Tampa Bay won in seven games. The Dodgers came back and beat the Braves after trailing 3-1. Good luck to both. Sports are an escape in the very strange world that we are in now. We can all use a pick me up. With that in mind, a colleague of mine, Professor Len Sandler from the University of Iowa Law School, sent me this link18018312069200. It really was a great pick me up when I listened to it. I hope it does the same for y’all.

 

Sometimes the people who enforce discrimination laws get themselves into trouble as well. The case of the day, Menoken v. Dhillon18118412170201, decided by the District of Columbia Circuit on September 15, 2020, is one such example. In this case, the EEOC gets sued for violating title VII and the Rehabilitation Act by the creation of a hostile work environment. As usual the blog entry is divided into categories, but not the usual ones, and they are: hostile work environment, interference, unlawful medical inquiry, breach of confidentiality, and thoughts/takeaways. This blog entry is pretty short, and so the reader is probably going to want to read the whole thing.

 

I

Hostile Work Environment

 

  1. Plaintiff, an attorney, proceeded pro se at the trial level, but the appellate court appointed counsel as amicus curiae to present arguments in support of her at the appellate level.
  2. Incidents taking place while the plaintiff was on leave can support a retaliatory hostile work environment claim.
  3. Court can consider any negative actions an employer takes during an employee’s absence when assessing whether a plaintiff has plausibly alleged a hostile work environment.
  4. An employer’s deliberate attempt to affect an employee’s finances and access to healthcare is precisely the type of conduct that might dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.
  5. The interactive process is viewed as a whole and not just based upon one particular point in the process.
  6. The agency did not engage in good faith efforts to determine what accommodation might be appropriate. Instead, plaintiff alleged that the EEOC deliberately delayed processing the request and then sought leverage to extract legal concessions designed to benefit the EEOC. That is, they offered to grant her reasonable accommodations on the condition she execute a general release absolving EEOC of liability with respect any claims arising from her employment.

 

II

Interference

 

  1. A retaliation claim and an interference claim are two different causes of action.
  2. The court mentioned two possibilities for analyzing interference claims: 1) Frakes, which we discussed here18218512271202; and 2) a test proposed by the EEOC.
  3. The proposed EEOC test would require the plaintiff to allege that the employer: 1) coerced, intimidated, threatened, or interfered with any individual; 2) in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of his or her having exercise or enjoyed, or on account of his or her having aided or encouraged any other individual in the exercise or enjoyment of; 3) any right granted or protected by the ADA/RA.
  4. Regardless of the standard, plaintiff survives the motion to dismiss. In this case, the amended complaint describes a 10 year pattern of hostile treatment rooted in the EEOC’s antagonism toward the plaintiff’s protected activities under title VII. Her complaint alleges that as a result of that hostile behavior she suffered significant physical and mental injuries, including depression, acute stress, severe hypertension, and complex posttraumatic stress disorder.
  5. Plaintiff has stated a plausible claim of interference with her allegations of the EEOC’s efforts to delay processing her reasonable accommodation requests and their efforts to persuade her to accept the settlement offer as a condition of granting her requested accommodations.
  6. Plaintiff’s interference claim survived because she described in her complaint: 1) the nature of her disability; 2) the EEOC’s persistent and intentional effort to undermine her exercise of statutorily protected rights; and 3) the EEOC’s apparent failure to engage with plaintiff in good faith to identify a reasonable accommodation (this is a nice roadmap for an ADA interference complaint).

 

III

Unlawful Medical Inquiry

 

  1. To state a claim for an unlawful medical inquiry, plaintiff must allege that the employer in fact conducted an impermissible inquiry into the plaintiff’s medical condition. That claim fails because the plaintiff did not allege that the EEOC attempted to access her files in any way that constituted an unlawful inquiry. That is, no allegations were made of an impermissible disability related inquiry.

 

IV

Breach of Confidentiality

 

  1. The confidentiality requirements attach to an employee’s medical information that is obtained in the course of a permissible medical inquiry.
  2. No allegations exist that the EEOC obtained her medical records in the course of an inquiry into her medical condition.
  3. Since the files were obtained by the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs in connection with her occupational injury claim, the statutory obligation to treat those files as a confidential medical record rested with that agency and not the EEOC.

 

V

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. Hostile work environment claims apply to the Rehabilitation Act.
  2. Interference and retaliation claims are two different animals.
  3. Frakes18318612372203 remains a plausible way to analyze interference claims. The EEOC test might be another possibility. It will be interesting to follow what test for interference claims the courts wind up adopting.
  4. Incidents taking place while on leave can support a hostile work environment claim.
  5. The interactive process is looked at a whole and not as separate discrete parts.
  6. Bad idea to insist on a waiver of liability in exchange for reasonable accommodations.
  7. An unlawful medical inquiry claim must be based upon an impermissible inquiry into the plaintiff’s medical condition.
  8. A breach of confidentiality claim only attach it to records obtained in the course of a permissible medical inquiry, and the confidentiality obligation goes to the agency making that permissible medical inquiry and not to another agency not involved with that inquiry.
  9. A person going pro se at the trial level can get a big boost when the appellate court either allows for an amicus curiae or an in forma pauperis attorney to get involved with the filing of the brief.
  10. Be sure to get the interactive process right as we discussed here18418712473204.

 

Have a real fine day y’all.

Before getting started on the blog entry of the day, I put my absentee ballot in a drop box yesterday. Whoever you are voting for, please do vote. Also, my Braves beat the Dodgers yesterday in game one of the National League championship series. Can they win another three? I see the Tampa Bay Rays are up two on the Houston Astros. If Tampa Bay somehow wins the World Series, Tampa Bay will have teams that have won two professional championships in the same calendar year as the Tampa Bay Lightning has won the NHL Stanley Cup already.

 

Turning to the blog entry of the day, we look at a Seventh Circuit decision holding that the ministerial exception does not apply to hostile work environment claims. The case is Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish172119119119119 decided by the Seventh Circuit on August 31 of 2020. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; majority opinion; dissenting opinion; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.

 

I

Facts

 

Plaintiff Sandor Demkovich was hired in 2012 as the music director at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, a Catholic church in Calumet City, Illinois. He was fired in 2014. Demkovich is gay. When he was hired, he had been with his partner (now husband) for over a decade. He also was overweight and suffered from diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and he had these conditions before St. Andrew hired him.

Demkovich’s supervisor was Reverend Jacek Dada. According to Demkovich, Reverend Dada subjected him to a hostile work environment based on his sexual orientation and his disabilities.120120120120173[1]14 Demkovich alleges that Reverend Dada repeatedly and often subjected him to comments and epithets showing hostility to his sexual orientation, and increased the frequency and hostility after learning that Demkovich intended to marry his partner and again as the date of the ceremony approached. After the ceremony, Reverend Dada demanded Demkovich’s resignation because his marriage violated Church teachings. Demkovich refused, and Reverend Dada then fired him.

Demkovich also alleges that Reverend Dada repeatedly harassed and humiliated him based on his weight and medical issues. According to Demkovich, his job did not call for any particular physical-fitness requirements, and Reverend Dada never connected his disparaging and humiliating comments to Demkovich’s job performance. Demkovich alleges that Reverend Dada’s harassment on both grounds “humiliated and belittled” him, causing serious harm to his physical and mental health.

Defendants persuaded the district court to certify under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) a broad legal question, not limited to the factual details of the particular case.  The district court certified the following question:

Under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act, does the ministerial exception ban all claims of a hostile work environment brought by a plaintiff who qualifies as a minister, even if the claim does not challenge a tangible employment action?

II

Majority Opinion (Judge Hamilton), Holding That the Ministerial Exception Does Not Apply to Hostile Work Environment Claims

 

  1. The ministerial exception is an application of the First Amendment and not statutory interpretation.
  2. Plaintiff only challenges his work environment and not his termination.
  3. Churches are not exempt from federal employment discrimination laws as applied to their non-ministerial employees.
  4. All parties agree that plaintiff was a ministerial employee.
  5. The certified question assumes a hostile work environment.
  6. Religious organizations are not totally exempt from all legal claims by ministerial employees. For example, ministerial employees may be able to sue their employers and supervisors for breaches of contract and torts.
  7. The Ninth Circuit has drawn a line between tangible employment actions and hostile environment claims.
  8. The ministerial exception rationale simply doesn’t apply where harassment continues unrectified because it is impossible to claim that such harassment is a method of choosing clergy.
  9. Hiring, firing, promoting, retiring, transferring are all decisions that employers, including church related organizations, make to select those who carry out their work. Further employer control is available through a host of other tangible employment actions, such as decisions about compensation and benefits, working condition, resources available to do the job, training, support from other staff and volunteers, etc.
  10. Hostile environment claims involve different elements and specific rules for employer liability. Those differences show that a religious employer does not need an exemption from hostile work environment claims in order to be able to select and control its ministers.
  11. Hostile work environment claims are essentially tortious in nature. Such claims use different standards for holding an employer liable, and they do so precisely because of the behavior creating a hostile work environment is not essential for management supervision and control of employees.
  12. Hostile work environment claims have to meet a demanding standard.
  13. A hostile work environment is not a permissible means of exerting constitutionally protected control over employees to accomplish the mission of the business or the religious organization.
  14. Hosanna-Tabor175122122121121 made clear that its holding does not cover actions by employees alleging tortious conduct by the religious employers, and plaintiff is alleging classic tortious harassment.
  15. An employer’s need and right to control employees does not embrace harassing behavior that the Supreme Court has defined in numerous cases in terms of what unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.
  16. The notion that such harassment is necessary to control or supervise an employee is an oxymoron. After all, one can presume that an employer is interested in maximizing the employee’s ability to perform his or her stated duties to further the organization’s objectives and not in favor of permitting an environment that actively inhibits job performance that is beyond the scope of that supervisor’s own employment.
  17. That the conduct may have been motivated by Catholic doctrine isn’t enough because the Catholic Church does not embrace such conduct as its own employment policy.
  18. Hosanna-Tabor’s decision not to extend constitutional protection to tortious conduct in combination with the Supreme Court’s understanding of hostile work environment as a tortious cause of action points toward allowing hostile work environment claim by ministerial employees so long as they do not challenge tangible employment actions.
  19. The ministerial exception protects the rights of religious employers and not supervisors within those organizations. Therefore, holding that tangible employment action directly attributable to employers are off limits makes sense. However, it equally makes sense that hostile environment claims should not come within the ministerial exception for the same reason.
  20. Supervisors within religious organizations have no constitutionally protected rights under the ministerial exception to abuse those employees they manage, whether or not they are motivated by their personal religious beliefs.
  21. The ministerial exception is not unlimited. Civil courts may hear and decide a range of other cases involving ministers and religious employers without violating the First Amendment.
  22. Successful hostile work environment claims frequently involve highly disturbing facts.
  23. An oral argument, defendants acknowledged that a religious employer could be civilly liable for a supervisor’s criminal or tortious conduct towards a ministerial employee.
  24. Accordingly, it is hard to fathom why a statutory case based on the same conduct would necessarily violate the First Amendment regardless of whether the supervisor claims a religious motive.
  25. The First Amendment would not give supervisors and coworkers of ministerial employees the right to leave nooses at the desk of a black minister while repeatedly subjecting him to verbal abuse with racial epithets and symbols. It also would not permit supervisors and coworkers to subject the teacher to pervasive and unwelcome sexual attention or to intimidating harassment based on national origin. Those kinds of harassment are not constitutionally necessary to control ministerial employees. Accordingly, an overarching ministerial exception goes too far.
  26. Religious employers have long been subject to employment discrimination suit by their non-ministerial employees.
  27. The Catholic Church has faced extensive litigation over torts committed by clergy in recent years and such litigation is not foreclosed by constitutional concerns.
  28. When it comes to cases involving churches, courts may get involved if they avoid issues of faith and stick to applying neutral, secular principles of law.
  29. Plaintiff is not asking the court to pass on religious doctrine or practices. After all, civil courts have nothing to say about whether the church should permit same-sex marriage or structure their organization in a certain way. The church is free to decide whether to retain the plaintiff or fire him. However, a hostile work environment claim is looked at under neutral generally applicable standards.
  30. As in cases applying secular legal rule to torts, contracts, or property disputes, courts may apply secular hostile environment jurisprudence to actions taken toward employees.
  31. An individual’s religious belief does not excuse him from compliance with otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.
  32. “Taking these lines of analysis together, we base our decision on three points. First, the Free Exercise Clause does not bar all hostile environment claims by ministerial employees. Second, the risk of procedural entanglement in such cases is modest because religious organizations have no generalized claim to immunity from litigation or regulation. Third, in hostile environment cases brought by ministerial employees, there is some risk of substantive entanglement, but that risk does not appear so severe that all such claims must be dismissed. We believe that risk can be managed by avoiding substantive decisions on issues of religious doctrine or belief and by balancing First Amendment rights with the employee’s rights and the government’s interest in regulating employment discrimination. We trust that district courts will manage these issues in their sound discretion. It is, of course, conceivable that certain cases may unavoidably present factual questions that would entangle courts excessively in substantive religious decision-making. District judges can narrow or dismiss such cases if they arise. But the possibility of some outlier cases does not persuade us that the First Amendment requires courts to bar an entire category of claims authorized by federal statute.”

 

III
Dissenting Opinion by Judge Flaum

 

  1. Plaintiff’s complaint alleged both a hostile work environment claim as well as claims based upon tangible employment actions.
  2. The 10th Circuit has held that the ministerial exception bars hostile work environment claims.
  3. A church must not be constrained in its dealings with ministers by employment laws that interfere with the church’s internal management, including antidiscrimination laws.
  4. The ministerial exception precludes any inquiry whatsoever into the reasons behind a church’s ministerial employment decision.
  5. The majority opinion will result in the encroachment by the State into an area of religious freedom that States cannot go into under the free exercise clause.
  6. Control of a minister necessarily includes telling a minister that his behavior does not conform with church doctrine and by instructing him to change his behavior.
  7. It is not for the court to regulate how a church communicates with its minister to further its religious objectives.
  8. Churches will now have the incentive to employ ministers that lessen their exposure to liability rather than hire those that best further there religious objectives.
  9. Deciding a hostile work environment claim with respect to a church necessarily means looking at the plaintiff’s terms and conditions of employment in matters involving the church’s governance and administration, including its employment relationship with the plaintiff, its control over the plaintiff, and the plaintiff’s workplace conditions.
  10. Remedies for outrageous acts do exist but they are not contained within federal employment law.

 

IV

 

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. I certainly see this getting appealed to the United States Supreme Court. It is a topic of great interest to the Justices. Also, a Circuit Court split exists. If Justice Ginsburg was still on the court, I would say the swing vote would be Justice Roberts or possibly Justice Kavanaugh. It is impossible to predict what a person does once they are on the Supreme Court. That said, if Justice Barrett is confirmed the church may very well prevail easily. We already know from Justice Gorsuch’s writings and opinions that he would be very likely to find in favor of the church. Whether a Supreme Court decision deciding in favor of the church is good or bad, depends upon your own particular viewpoint.
  2. Judge Barrett was not on the panel hearing this case. Since it is likely that this case will come before the Supreme Court, she would be very unlikely to answer any questions about the scope of the ministerial exception at the confirmation hearings, which are taking place now.
  3. How high the bar is for deciding hostile work environment claims is being debated hotly. For example, Minnesota has said things have to change, as we discussed here176123123122122.
  4. This decision and jurisdictions following the Seventh Circuit will force plaintiffs to craft their complaint in such a way so as to make clear that hostile work environment claims are being alleged and not tangible employment actions. Plaintiffs will also want to make sure they allege as many facts as possible going to the severe and pervasive nature of the conduct. Finally, plaintiffs will also want to utilize the Minnesota case to give them more of a chance for succeeding in hostile work environment claims.
  5. There is lots of publicity about how the next Supreme Court justice may affect the affordable care act and abortion. This case might be another one where the next Justice may profoundly affect the outcome of the case.
  6. Interesting approach by the defense in this case to argue that church doctrine permitted a hostile work environment.
  7. If you are in a protected class, it is hard to recommend employment by a religious entity after Lady of Guadalupe177124124123123. A decision allowing religious organization to be immune from hostile work environment claims for their ministers would only strengthen that recommendation. It may be a pyrrhic victory because religious organizations may find it hard to hire people from protected classes, especially if the Supreme Court reverses Demkovich.

For those with teams continuing in the baseball playoffs, good luck this week. Both of my Chicago teams are out. However, my Braves are still in it. Today’s blog entry will discuss the legislation just filed in Congress this week by Representative Budd, a Republican from North Carolina, and by Representative Correa, a Democrat from California, entitled the Online Accessibility Act, here169119119119. Richard Hunt, a colleague of mine and frequent co-presenter, has an excellent blog entry on it where he goes into quite a bit of detail on it, here170120120120. He and I don’t always come out the same place. In this instance, we are pretty close, though there are some subtle differences worth discussing. So, I thought it would be a good idea to blog on this as well. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: the Online Accessibility Act; my thoughts; and what Richard says/concluding thoughts. Of course, the reader is free to read any or all of the categories.

 

I

Online Accessibility Act

 

  1. Creates a separate title VI of the ADA.
  2. Applies to consumer facing websites and mobile applications owned or operated by a private entity.
  3. Prohibits discrimination by reason of a disability by any private owner or operator of a consumer facing website or mobile application with respect to excluding the person with the disability from participation or denying them the full and equal benefits of the services of a consumer facing website or mobile application. It also prohibits discrimination by any private owner or operator of the consumer facing website or mobile application.
  4. Compliance mean substantial compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 and any subsequent revisions at their level A and AA levels.
  5. If a private entity owning or operating a consumer facing website or mobile application is not in substantial compliance, they have to provide an alternative means of access for individuals with disabilities that is equivalent to access the content available on that website or mobile application.
  6. The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board is given the responsibility for issuing and publishing standards defining what is substantial compliance, alternative means of access, and consumer facing website or mobile applications. They also have the responsibility for issuing regulations concerning what is substantial compliance.
  7. After 180 days from enactment of the act, the Access Board must promulgate a notice of proposed rulemaking. They also have to periodically review and where appropriate amend the standards to reflect technological advances or changes in electronic and information technology. The final regulations must include flexibility for small business concerns.
  8. Requires exhaustion of administrative remedies with the Department of Justice before a claim by an individual can be filed.
  9. The Department of Justice has 365 days from when the comment period ends on the Access Board regulations to develop procedures for receiving and investigating complaints.
  10. Prior to filing a complaint with DOJ, an individual must first notify the private owner operator of a consumer facing website or mobile application that the website or mobile application is not in compliance with the standard for compliance.
  11. Once the private owner or operator of a consumer facing website or mobile application receives the complaint, they have 90 days to bring that website or application into compliance. If they don’t, the individual can then file a complaint with DOJ.
  12. If the individual does file a complaint with DOJ, a copy of that complaint must be provided to the owner or operator of a consumer facing website or mobile application.
  13. An individual has 90 days from the end of the 90 day notification period to the owner or operator of the website or mobile application to file a claim with DOJ.
  14. Once a complaint is filed with DOJ, DOJ has 180 days to determine whether a violation exists.
  15. A final determination by DOJ is either DOJ determining a lack of noncompliance or the 180 day period expires without DOJ having made a final determination.
  16. DOJ can certify that a state law or local ordinance establishing accessibility requirements meets or exceeds the minimum requirements of the Online Accessibility Act. If a State or local government has such certification, that is rebuttable evidence that the state or local ordinance meets or exceeds the minimum requirements of the Online Accessibility Act.
  17. DOJ has authority to bring its own civil actions if either a pattern or practice exist or if a person or group or person has been discriminated against and that discrimination raises an issue of general public importance.
  18. If DOJ brings the action, equitable relief, monetary damages to the persons harmed by the website or mobile application, and civil penalties are all in order. With respect to civil penalties, civil penalties are not to exceed $20,000 for the first violation and not to exceed $50,000 for any subsequent violation.
  19. Punitive damages are out.
  20. A determination in a single action by judgment or settlement that a consumer facing website or mobile application has engaged in more than one discriminatory act gets counted as a single violation for purposes of civil penalties.
  21. In considering the civil penalties, a court has to give consideration to any good faith efforts or attempts by the consumer facing website or mobile application to comply with the Online Accessibility Act.
  22. A private individual cannot bring a civil action against the website or mobile application if the Attorney General has instituted an enforcement action already.
  23. Any complaint alleging violations of the Online Accessibility Act must plead with particularity each element of the claim, including the specific barriers to access of the consumer facing website or mobile application.
  24. Consumer facing website means any website purposely made accessible to the public for commercial purposes.
  25. Mobile application means a consumer facing software application that can be executed on a mobile platform or a web-based software application tailored to a mobile platform but is executed on a server.
  26. Small business means anything described in 15 U.S.C. 632(a).

 

II

My Thoughts

 

  1. They have to fix the punctuation in §601(a) with respect to causation. Right now, “by reason of disability” is contained within commas. So, that leads one to wonder if causation is truly “by reason of a disability,” or if that is just one idea for causation. I am sure they meant causation to be “by reason of a disability,” and so they need to take the first comma out.
  2. 601’s title says that it pertains to requirement for consumer facing websites and mobile application owned or operated by a private entity. However, §601(a) says that it applies to discrimination, “by any private owner or operator of a consumer facing website or mobile application.” If Congress wants to match up this section with its heading they should take out the phrase “private owner or operator,” and replace it with “private owner or private operator.”
  3. Level AA and level A of WCAG are very different levels of compliance. Perhaps, the regulations will make clear which level is substantial compliance. As a matter of preventive law, you are better off with level AA. The reason level A may have been put in there is to allow for level A compliance for certain small businesses, which was the Obama administration approach in its proposed regulations.
  4. There is an assumption being made here that compliance with WCAG level AA or level A always equals meaningful access. That isn’t necessarily the case.
  5. Essentially what the Act does is set up an EEOC system for online accessibility complaints. That is, you have to file a complaint first and get a final resolution before you are able to proceed to court.
  6. I don’t see anything in this bill detailing the specificity of the notice an individual must make to the private owner operator of the consumer facing website or mobile application that is alleged to be in noncompliance.
  7. Once the 90 days period after the owner operator of the website or mobile application has received the notice has expired, the individual then has 90 days from that to file a complaint with DOJ.
  8. I don’t see anything in this bill requiring the DOJ to issue a right to sue letter. Instead, it seems if 180 days has expired without the DOJ making a final determination then the individual has a right to sue and a letter isn’t necessary. I wonder if regulations will address this point.
  9. I don’t understand where DOJ is going to get the technical expertise to certify that a state law or local ordinance meets or exceeds the requirements of the Online Accessibility Act when it is based upon WCAG 2.0 et. ff. level AA or level A. That stuff is really complicated and far beyond the expertise of most lawyers. Also, where is DOJ going to get the resources to investigate noncompliance. I think it is more likely that DOJ would just let the 90 day period go by. If there is a new presidential administration, we will know more in a month, perhaps we will see more resources devoted to DOJ for doing this. We also may see a completely different kind of regulations from both the Access Board and the DOJ depending upon the election results.
  10. The bill has a separate section for remedies for action brought by DOJ. However, I don’t see anything about the remedies for an action brought by a private individual once administrative remedies have been exhausted. That is something that has to be fixed. Presumably, the remedies might match up with title III of the ADA but this bill doesn’t say. Congress definitely needs to fix this so that the remedies for a private individual after exhaustion are specified.
  11. 603(a) of the act states, “in any action filed under this title (emphasis mine), the complaint shall plead with particularity each element of the plaintiff’s claim, including the specific barriers to access a consumer facing website or mobile application.” The use of the term “title,” means this requirement applies to both DOJ and to individual bringing a private cause of action. Questions remain as to what “pleading with particularity,” and “including the specific barriers…,” mean. It would seem strange that DOJ by regulation could specify all of that. It would seem that courts are going to have to figure out what “particularity,” and “specific barriers,” mean.
  12. Does the Access Board have the resources and expertise to develop these regulations?
  13. Nothing in the Act answers the question of whether religious entities are exempt from this title or not. They are from title III.

III

 

What Richard Says/Concluding Thoughts

 

  1. Richard lays out the following problems with the current scheme:

 

  • There is no recognized legal standard for website accessibility. A website that satisfies one court may not satisfy another, and a business that settles a lawsuit today may be sued tomorrow over the same website.

Agreed.

  • There is no recognized technical standard for website accessibility. It is often claimed that WCAG 2.0 AA is sufficient, but there is no statutory or regulatory authority for its application to business websites, so technical compliance will not guarantee freedom from lawsuits.

Agreed.

  • Even if WCAG 2.x AA were the technical standard it would not a suitable legal standard because conformance over an extended period of time is impossible and the standard itself does not recognize any level of conformance other than perfect conformance.(11) Modern websites are constantly in flux, and since those who develop them are human and therefore likely to make mistakes, a website that is in conformance one day may not be the next. A standard that requires constant perfection can never be met and therefore guarantees future litigation no matter how diligent any business might be.

Agreed

  • Although websites are by their nature available in all fifty states and U.S. territories there is no single law governing accessibility. A website operated from Topeka, Kansas is subject not only to the ADA and the laws of Kansas, but also to the laws of New York, New York City, California, and a host of other varying state and municipal standards. A website that passes muster in Florida may be unacceptable in Ohio or Puerto Rico.

Agreed.

  1. I agree with Richard that “substantial compliance,” is problematic because of its dual meanings. As Richard points out, it can either apply to nonconforming elements or it could apply to nonconforming elements interfering with meaningful access to the benefits or services of the website. I also agree with Richard that meaningful access, the standard in title II of the ADA, should be the overriding standard for legal compliance. As Richard points out, the advantage to using a meaningful access standard is that there may be elements of the website that are inaccessible but do not prevent meaningful access for the person with the disability.
  2. Richard points out that the bill lacks a grace period and that there was a grace period for physical access. He believes there should be a grace period for online accessibility. The problem is just how long would that grace period be?
  3. Richard also suggests that this title of the ADA should preempt state laws. I see where he is going with that. The Act tries to get around that by saying that DOJ can certify substantial compliance. That is kind of a similar thing as to how the EEOC certifies a state agency as being equivalent with respect to investigating civil-rights employment claims. The problem I have is how will DOJ have the expertise and the resources to certify that state requirements for online accessibility meet the standards laid out in the Act. I am generally not a fan of preemption, but there is something to be said for Richard’s point on this in light of the very nature of the online medium.
  4. I agree that meaningful access needs to be the overriding legal standard. It has worked well in title II and in title III non-architectural barrier matters. Also, this bill is a long way from becoming law. Right now, between the President having Covid-19 and the upcoming Barrett nomination, it is hard to see how anything will get through the Senate. It is entirely possible that in a month from now we will see a significant change in the makeup of the president and the Congress come January, but we don’t know. If there is a significant change come January, anything can happen.
  5. The causation paragraph definitely needs to be changed and the remedies available to a private individual bringing a claim after DOJ exhaustion need to be specified.

Go Atlanta Braves.

Before getting started on the blog entry of the day, I wanted to wish everyone with teams in the baseball playoffs good luck. I actually have three teams in the baseball playoffs: brave; cubs; and White Sox. No, I am not watching nine hours of baseball today, but I am recording all three of my teams. On the football side, my Bears are 3-0 while the Falcons are 0-3. The Falcons recently became the only team in NFL history to blow big leads in two consecutive games. Good luck to your baseball teams and to your football teams. Hope all of the players as well as all of my readers can stay healthy and safe.

 

Turning to the blog entry of the day, with the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court I wanted to take a look at her cases dealing with persons with disabilities, and I also wanted to see if I could figure out her judicial philosophy. I have done similar blog entries for both Justice Gorsuch16868193119119119119119119 and for Justice Kavanaugh16969194120120120120120120. This process proved to be a little bit different than the other two. In particular, I couldn’t figure out much about her way of approaching cases from reading the opinions on disability rights. However, my research took me to a Law Review article that she wrote in 2010 entitled “Substantive Canons and Faithful Agency,” which appeared in the Boston University Law Review in 2010, and that article gave me some indication about how she goes about looking at cases. So, the blog entry is essentially divided into three categories and they are: disability (ADA or Rehabilitation Act cases that she has been involved with); her judicial philosophy; and thoughts takeaways. The reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories. With respect to disability rights cases that she has been involved with, the only cases I could find were cases involving the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act and a couple of excessive force cases or deliberate indifference to medical needs of prisoners. I did not find anything involving the Fair Housing Act or the Air Carrier Access Act for example. My search for cases involved using a casetext search, “Judge /7 Barrett and disability or disabled and 504 or ADA.” Then, Law Office Space blog posted a link to SCOTUS blog, which had a page listing all her cases, here17070195121121121121121121. Interestingly, SCOTUS blog missed one case, McCray v. Wilkie, which we have discussed previously in our blog and will mention later as well.

 

I

Cases

 

  1. Banks v. Patton17171196122122122122122122, a nonprecedential disposition order from July 26, 2018: In this case, a prisoner claimed that the jail did not reasonably accommodate his disabilities. Judge Barrett was part of the opinion holding that the prisoner seeking a change in security classification to be housed in a different location in the prison was asking for a fundamental alteration to the program. It also held that the accommodations were denied for reasons other than disability. Finally, the opinion held that the prisoner should not have had summary judgment entered against him for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as the prison never responded to his claims.
  2. Carello v. Aurora Policeman Credit Union17272197123123123123123123, unpublished decision decided July 15, 2019: In this case, the plaintiff sued the credit union for website inaccessibility. Judge Barrett wrote the opinion holding that the plaintiff had no standing since he could never be a member of the credit union. There really isn’t anything revolutionary about this case as my colleague Richard Hunt has discussed many times in his blog. The thing to note here is that the inability to become a member only works for a plaintiff that could never become a member. It is entirely possible that a membership only organization may wind up in a situation where the plaintiff using a screen reader could conceivably become a member. In that case, the standing strategy doesn’t work.
  3. Cook County v. Wolf17373198124124124124124124, unpublished decision decided June 10, 2020: This case involved the public charge rule. Judge Barrett dissented and said that the public charge rule was within the authority of the Department of Homeland Security. However, the case should have been remanded to see if the public charge rule violated other laws, such as but not limited to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  4. Graham v. Arctic Zone IcePlex, LLC17474199125125125125125125, unpublished decision decided July 23, 2019: This case has been previously discussed recently by my colleague Eric Meyer, a partner with Fisher Broyles, in his blog17575200126126126126126126. Here, a plaintiff sued his employer for failure to accommodate his disability. Judge Barrett wrote the opinion and held: 1) plaintiff did not provide sufficient information to the employer to determine the necessary accommodations; 2) just because an employer does not act on one problem does not forfeit the employer’s right to act later; and 3) the plaintiff did not furnish sufficient evidence to indicate bad faith on the part of the employer with respect to intentional discrimination.
  5. Grussgot v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School Inc.17676201127127127127127127, 882 F.3d 655, decided February 13, 2018: This case involved the ministerial exception. Per curiam opinion that Judge Barrett joined. The opinion anticipate the Supreme Court decision in Lady of Guadalupe. In particular, the plaintiff was found to be a minister and language used in the opinion included: the plaintiff had a role connected to the employer’s religious mission; plaintiff participated in shaping the practice of faith; and the school intended her role to be a religious one. Since the opinion occurred before Lady of Guadalupe, the opinion went through all four opinions in Hosanna Tabor17777202128128128128128128 and found that the 2 to 2 split resolved itself in favor of the plaintiff being a minister.
  6. King v. Hendricks County Commissioners17878203129129129129129129, 954 F.3d 981, decided March 31, 2020: In this case, Judge Barrett joined an opinion by Judge Wood upholding a summary judgment and holding the following in an excessive force case involving a person with a disability. In particular, the opinion said that no reasonable accommodations were proposed by the plaintiff. Also, there is a discussion of but for causation, but that discussion in my opinion has now been superseded by Bostock, which we discussed here17979204130130130130130130.
  7. Marx v. Richland County18080205131131131131131131, nonprecedential disposition decided September 23, 2019: This case involved a failure to accommodate. Judge Barrett was part of an opinion holding that the plaintiff never triggered the interactive process because he never came out and said the accommodation was needed and why.
  8. Mayle v. City of Chicago18181206132132132132132132, nonprecedential disposition decided April 29, 2020. In this case, plaintiff had a hog that he trained to engage in recognition and response. He wanted to take the hog to public places just like a person could take a dog that has been trained to engage in recognition and response to public places. Judge Barrett joined an order saying: 1) the right to a service animal was not a fundamental right; 2) persons with disabilities are in the rational basis class; and 3) a rational basis existed for limiting service animals to dogs so the Department of Justice title II and title III regulations excluding service animals other than dogs are kosher. I just want to point out that the hog in this case would undoubtedly be considered an assistance animal under the latest HUD circular, which we discussed here18282207133133133133133133.
  9. Moens v. City of Chicago18383208134134134134134134, nonprecedential disposition decided May 20, 2020. In this case Judge Barrett joined an order saying that attendance was an essential function of the job and there was no evidence of a hostile work environment. I note that this decision came down after the pandemic but well after the case had been argued. Whether attendance is an essential function of the job is no longer subject to the same assumptions in place before the pandemic.
  10. Chaudry v. Amazon.com.Dedc, LLC18484209135135135135135135, a nonprecedential disposition decided February 12, 2019. In this case, she joined an order dismissing the case. Basically, plaintiff was pro se and simply could not craft an argument or a complaint that could be understood by the court.
  11. Parent v. Taylor18585210136136136136136136, 914 F.3d 467 decided January 22, 2019: This case involved a system in Wisconsin that allowed people to transfer from one school to another out of their district. In order to be able to do the transfer, a school had to find first that they had excess capacity. Plaintiff challenged that. Judge Barrett joined an opinion written by Judge Sykes saying that whether excess capacity existed was an essential eligibility requirement of the program. Also, removal of the excess capacity requirement would fundamentally alter the nature of the program. Finally, Judge Sykes quoting from another case stated that federal law forbids discrimination based upon stereotypes about a handicap, but it does not permit decisions based on the actual attributes of the handicap.” I must confess I am at a loss to understand the distinction between stereotypes and attributes. I can see how Judge Sykes could say that excess capacity was an essential eligibility requirement and that getting rid of that requirement would fundamentally alter the nature of the program.
  12. Pegues v. Coe18686211137137137137137137, nonprecedential disposition decided April 11, 2019: In this case, Judge Barrett joined an order finding that plaintiff did not make a showing that the prison was deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. Importantly, the case did not involve a failure to accommodate or it is possible that deliberate indifference may have been looked at differently as we discussed here18787212138138138138138138.
  13. Penny v. Lincoln’s Challenge Academy18888213139139139139139139, a nonprecedential disposition decided August 27, 2020: In this case, Judge Barrett joined an order affirming summary judgment saying that there was no evidence connecting any dislike for the plaintiff with her protected activity. The only thing I will say about this case is that there is a vibe that summary judgment can be used to screen out cases. Many Judges take that approach, though not all.
  14. Pierri v. Medline Industries18989214140140140140140140, unpublished decision decided August 6, 2020: This case involved an association discrimination claim. Judge Barrett joined an opinion by Judge Wood holding that no adverse action had occurred. The decision also talks about how association claims in the Seventh Circuit fall into three categories but that list was not exhaustive. We discussed the Seventh Circuit’s approach to association discrimination claims here19090215141141141141141141.
  15. Sansone v. Brennan19191216142142142142142142, 917 F.3d 975 decided March 6, 2019. In this case, Judge Barrett wrote the opinion holding that the jury instruction on reasonable accommodation given by the lower court was kosher, but the court erred in its ruling regarding expert testimony.
  16. Youngman v. Peoria County19292217143143143143143143, 947 F.3d 1037 decided January 24, 2020. In this case, Judge Barrett joined an opinion by Judge Rovner holding that the plaintiff could not link their symptom needing accommodation with the disability alleged.
  17. McCray v. Wilkie19393218144144144144144144, unpublished decision from July 16, 2020. In this case, which we discussed here19494219145145145145145145 , Judge Barrett joined an opinion holding that unreasonable delay in providing a reasonable accommodation is actionable.

 

II

Judge Barrett’s Approach

 

As mentioned before, you simply can’t by reading these decisions get a sense of how Judge Barrett approaches problems. Part of that is that a lot of the opinions involving people with disabilities were opinions she joined and did not write herself or were nonprecedential dispositions. Also, the opinions are relatively straightforward situations. So, where do you go to get a sense of how she approaches analyzing cases. I must admit I was stumped until in my research for trying to figure out how she might view Chevron deference, I got led to her law review article “Substantive Canons and Faithful Agency,” published in the Boston University Law Review in 2010. In college, I took a course called legal theory and reading this law review article reminded me very much of what I read in that course. It is a 75 page law review article, but I can condense it into the following key points. Before getting there, a word about canons of construction is in order. Canons of construction, as she points out in her law review article, have been around from the very beginning of this country. They are used in a variety of purposes. Sometimes, as a tiebreaker to figure out situations that are unclear. Other times they are used to carry out values when the statutes seem to violate those. She considers herself a textualist and so the use of these Canon can be problematic for someone that relies on text first. She also believes that Judges must be faithful to the legislature when it comes to laws that they make because it is the legislature’s job to make the laws. Also as a result of Marbury v. Madison, she also believes that the courts must be faithful to the Constitution as well. So, after her exhaustive research she concludes the power to develop and apply substantive canons (something that could change how a case is decided rather than just a procedural item), of construction is consistent with constitutional structures subject to important limitations below.

 

  1. The Constitution affords federal courts the ability to part from the best interpretation of a statute in favor of one that is less plausible yet still bearable because the power to do that derives from the power of judicial review. However, a court may exercise this power only in pursuit of constitutional values.
  2. Canons promoting values beyond the Constitution may be employed only as a presumption guiding the choice where equally plausible interpretations of the statute exist.
  3. Language pushing canons must be tied to relatively specific constitutional norms and must be consistent with the constitutional value they purport to promote.
  4. Canons permitting a court to qualify clear text run headlong into the obligation of faithful agency and are inconsistent with the constitutional structure.
  5. Absent a clear statement, a court will not interpret a statute to raise a serious constitutional question nor will it interpret a statute to abrogate customary international law.
  6. No justification exist for departing from the plain text of a constitutional statute.

 

III

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. A couple of these cases might be decided differently now that Bostock has been decided. As we discussed here19595220146146146146146146, Bostock has fundamentally changed what but for causation means in the context of discrimination cases.
  2. Her opinion upholding the lack of standing in the credit union case is straightforward. As mentioned earlier in this entry, the strategy doesn’t work if a plaintiff could conceivably become a member of the credit union.
  3. Nothing on Auer or Chevron deference. I do think you can say from §II of this blog entry that she would not like Auer deference and would support getting rid of it or severely narrowing it as the Supreme Court did in Kisor v. Wilkie, which we discussed here19696221147147147147147147. Regarding Chevron deference, that is a closer call because all legislation has an enabling clause in them that allows a particular agency to implement the regulation. That kind of implementing clause might give someone who is a believer in faithful agency that Chevron deference makes perfect sense. Some States, such as Illinois, have a separate agency serving under the legislature whose purpose is to ensure that proposed regulations are consistent with legislative intent. One wonders if Judge Barrett would approve of such arrangements as being constitutional because it ensures faithfulness to the legislature, which has the ultimate authority for making laws.
  4. Judging from Grussgot as well as her strong religious faith, she is likely to be a strong supporter of reading the ministerial exception broadly.
  5. Unclear as to where she stands with respect to summary judgment motions. Many Judges use it as a screen out tool to prevent only but the best cases from getting to the jury. Justice Gorsuch is on the other hand does not like summary judgment tools at all. He looks for genuine issue of material facts and does not care for how summary judgment is often used as a screen out tool.
  6. I considered blogging at one point in time on the hog case. I may have even alluded to it in a comment to a previous blog entry. Keep in mind, the hog would be an assistance animal under the HUD circular. So, while the plaintiff could not take his hog out into public places, he certainly is able under the latest HUD circular19797222148148148148148148 to have the hog at his place of residence as an assistance animal.
  7. Any judicial opinion involving facts before March 2020 holding that attendance is an essential function of the job is suspect in light of what has happened since. As I have mentioned previously in the blog, I expect lots of litigation over whether attendance is a personal preference or an essential function of the job.
  8. Deliberate indifference for purpose of medical needs in a prison is not the same as deliberate indifference for purposes of pursuing damages against a title II entity for failure to accommodate. For the leading case discussing damages under title II of the ADA, see this blog entry19898223149149149149149149.
  9. Likely to go before the Supreme Court is just how to deal with association discrimination claims. Must they fit into one of three categories as the Seventh Circuit suggests, or can association discrimination claim go beyond those three categories. It is unclear where she stands on that.
  10. Also, not clear on how close the link between the disability and the accommodation must be. For example, how close of a link does have to be to the essential functions of the job where an individual needs a service animal in order to function in the mainstream world. That service animal is going to do a lot of different things that have nothing to do with an individual’s job. However, an individual could not do the job but for the service animal.
  11. Justice Scalia’s impact on jurisprudence has been absolutely huge. As Justice Kagan has said, “we are all textualist now.” However, what that means is not the same for every single judge.. For example, it is pretty clear from reading the law review article discussed in §II of this blog entry that Judge Barrett would not have agreed with Justice Gorsuch in Bostock.
  12. Unclear as to what equal protection class Judge Barrett would place persons with disabilities into.
  13. When it comes to persons with disabilities, what I have found is that people who get disability so to speak either have a disability themselves or are closely associated with someone who does. It has been widely reported that Judge Barrett has a child with Down syndrome. How that might seep into her disability related decisions is far from clear.

 

Voting has already started in many places. Regardless of your views, make sure you vote.

First off, I want to wish all of my Jewish brethren a happy new year, and a nice period of reflection leading up to Yom Kippur. A bit different this year with massive synagogue gatherings not being in the cards. Some of us just reflected while others may have gone online and participated with their synagogue that way. Regardless of the means used, I hope your reflection went well.

 

I have quite a few cases that I could blog on in my pipeline, but today I opted to blog on HR 2694, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act168119119119186117 that passed with large bipartisan majorities in the House on September 17. A few of my colleagues who blog on labor and employment law have already mentioned it, such as Eric Meyer and Jon Hyman. It wouldn’t surprise me if Robin Shea and many others weigh in as well. I thought I would break it down. So, here goes.

 

As we know from this blog entry, it makes sense as a preventive law matter to analyze accommodations for women who are pregnant in the same way that you would go about doing it for the ADA. However, that is just a matter of preventive law. This particular bill would mandate that whenever dealing with accommodation for women who are pregnant, you want to have your ADA hat on. The blog entry is divided into categories, all of which except the thoughts/takeaways section focuses on the Act itself. You are definitely going to want to read the whole thing as focusing on just parts of the Act doesn’t make any sense. Also, readers consistently tell me that my thoughts/takeaways section is very valuable. So, that means you need to read the whole thing. It isn’t very long anyway.

 

I

Unlawful Employment Practices Include

 

  1. Not making reasonable accommodations to the known limitations related to the pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions of a qualified employee unless the covered entity can show an undue hardship on the operation of the business;
  2. Requiring a qualified employee affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions to accept an accommodation other than any reasonable accommodation arrived at through the interactive process;
  3. Denying employment opportunities to a qualified employee if the denial was based upon the need of the covered entity to make reasonable accommodation to the known limitations related to the pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions of a qualified employee;
  4. Requiring a qualified employee to take leave, whether paid or unpaid, if another reasonable accommodation can be provided to the known limitations related to the pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions of a qualified employee;
  5. Taking adverse action and terms, condition, or privileges of employment against a qualified employee on account of the employee requesting or using a reasonable accommodation to the known limitations related to the pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions of the employee.

 

II

Remedies

 

  1. Remedies are tied into title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  2. Attorney fees and expert witness fees are recoverable.
  3. Prohibits retaliation.
  4. Prohibits coercion, intimidation, threats, or interference.
  5. Good faith is a defense to damages.
  6. There is a forcible waiver of sovereign immunity.

 

III

Applicability to Federal Government

 

  1. Applies to Congress.
  2. Applies to employees of the federal government.

 

IV

Definitions

 

  1. Covered entity under this Act is defined in the same way as §701(n) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e(n).169120120120187118
  2. “Known limitation,” means a physical and mental condition related to, or affected by, or arising out of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions that the employee or employee’s representative has communicated to the employer whether or not such condition meets the definition of a disability under the ADA.
  3. “Qualified employee,” means an employee or applicant who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position. However, a person is still qualified if all of the following are true: 1) any inability to perform the essential function is for a temporary period; 2) the essential function could be performed in the near future; and 3) the inability to perform the essential function can be reasonably accommodated.
  4. “Reasonable accommodation,” and “undue hardship,” mean the same thing as found in 42 U.S.C. §12111170121121121188119, title I of the ADA.

 

V

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. When I talked to my colleague Robin Shea, a partner with Constangy et. al., about this, she thought the bill was a good idea because while doing all this is great preventive law. Young v. United Parcel Service171122122122189120 can get fuzzy at times, as discussed later. I agree with her. After Young v. United Parcel Service, this bill is exactly what best practices for any employer would be and it would be codified.
  2. Covered entity tracks the Civil Rights Act and NOT what is a place of public accommodation under 42 U.S.C. §12181172123123123190121(7).
  3. Must have 15 or more employees, which is the same number as four title I of the ADA.
  4. Requires an interactive process and that process if done right is a defense to damages, which matches up with the remedies provisions associated with the ADA at 42 U.S.C. §1981a(a)(3).173124124124191122 Remember to get it right, as we discussed here174125125125192123. The interactive process must be in search of a reasonable accommodation that would provide the employee with an equally effective opportunity that does not cause an undue hardship, which also matches up with title I of the ADA.
  5. Since women are in an intermediate scrutiny class, the forcible waiver of sovereign immunity will probably fly because it likely would be found to be proportional to the harm being redressed.
  6. Undue hardship as phrased in the Act clearly includes both logistical and financial undue hardship, which also matches up with how title I of the ADA has been interpreted over the years.
  7. The EEOC is responsible for implementing the statute and has two years to draft regulations. My guess is that the regulations would closely track the title I ADA regulations.
  8. Out of necessity, qualified under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is not the same as qualified under title I of the ADA, though it is close.
  9. Is this legislation needed? After all, didn’t the Supreme Court in Young say that if an employer is accommodating persons with disabilities, they also have to accommodate pregnant workers? While it is true that the Supreme Court did hold that much, the paradigm for making it work is quite vague. I confirmed this by rereading the opinion. Young tells us the following: 1) McDonnell Douglas burden shifting gets used in pregnancy nondiscrimination matters; 2) a prima facie case means showing: the plaintiff belonged to the protected class; that she sought an accommodation; and that the employer did not accommodate her while accommodating other similar in their ability or inability to work; 3) a plaintiff can create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant burden exists by providing evidence that the employer accommodates a large percentage of nonpregnant workers while failing to accommodate a large percentage of pregnant workers. So, it is clear from rereading the opinion that pregnant workers must be reasonably accommodated if you are ready accommodating persons without disabilities. However, the opinion doesn’t say much about how that process is supposed to work. For example, no mention of an interactive process. Also, no mention of how far you have to go with respect to accommodating a pregnant worker in need of accommodations. Lawyers familiar with the ADA quickly realized that it made a great deal of sense to just take the ADA process and layer it onto accommodating pregnant workers. However, that is just lawyers being creative. Not all lawyers are that familiar with the ADA. This legislation makes it statutory that preventive law currently being used by farsighted lawyers also familiar with the ADA should be codified. So, I come down on the side that Young simply isn’t clear enough as to what needs to be done when accommodating pregnant workers, and so, in my view, this legislation is necessary.
  10. It’s going to be interesting to see whether this gets a Senate vote. It passed the House by overwhelming majorities. I am a political junkie, I wrote a seminar paper in college on voting behavior and follow the field religiously, and I have been reading quite a bit about how the Republicans are in trouble with educated women in the suburbs. Passing this legislation, which is something that farsighted employers should be doing anyway and which the Chamber of Commerce is backing, would seem to be an easy way for Republicans to say that they have done something for a group that is treating them with a great deal of skepticism at the moment. Then again, there is only so much bandwidth and there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court that has very much moved to the forefront. So, anybody’s guess at two whether the Senate considers it. Also, anybody’s guess as to whether the Senate amend the house bill in some way and it has to go to a conference committee.
  11. The overlap between FMLA and the ADA often raises the question whether you can force an employee to take FMLA leave rather than accommodate them per the ADA. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act makes clear that you cannot do that with respect to a pregnant person working for an entity covered by the Act. Best practices is such that you shouldn’t do that for the ADA either, though there isn’t a specific prohibition that would prevent an employer from doing that. That said, very bad idea for the employer to insist on leave and then end the interactive process.
  12. The use of the term “based on,” means that causation is but for as detailed in Bostock, discussed here175126126126193124.