Today’s blog entry will focus on the decision from the 11th Circuit decided September 12, 2019, on the Massage Envy case we discussed here. In this decision, the 11th Circuit affirmed the opinion of the lower court holding that regarded as does not apply to fear of a future disability. As mentioned in the original blog entry on this case, the lower courts are split on this question. I do look for a Circuit Court split in the future on the matters discussed in this blog entry. Since we have already talked about this case extensively, there isn’t a need to bother with the facts except as they are germane to the court’s reasoning. So, this blog entry is divided into categories of: court’s reasoning regarded as; court’s reasoning association discrimination; miscellaneous matters; and thoughts/takeaways. The reader is free to concentrate on any or all of the categories.

 

I

Court’s Reasoning Affirming the District Court That Regarded As Does Not Apply to Fear of Employee Catching Ebola on a Trip to Ghana

 

  1. Employer’s fear that employee could catch Ebola was unfounded as there were no confirmed cases of Ebola in Ghana during the 2014 outbreak.
  2. 42 U.S.C. §12102(1) defines a disability as: 1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; 2) a record of such an impairment; or 3) being regarded as having such an impairment.
  3. With respect to regarded as having such an impairment, 42 U.S.C. §12102(3)(A) that definition is satisfied if the individual establishes he or she had been subjected to an action prohibited under the ADA because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.
  4. Regarded as does not apply to impairments that are transitory and minor.
  5. Time period for assessing the existence of disability for purpose of triggering ADA protection is the time of the alleged discriminatory act.
  6. The court agrees with the defense that the employer perceived the employee as having the potential or possibility of becoming infected in the future when she traveled to Ghana. That is not the same thing as the employer perceiving the employee had Ebola.
  7. The definition of disability and 42 U.S.C. §12102(1) provides that a disability is a present physical or mental impairment, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.
  8. Many courts have said that the impairment in the actual disability prong is limited to impairments existing at the time of the adverse employment action and does not include impairments manifesting after the alleged discrimination. Therefore, it necessarily follows that impairment in the regarded as prong has the same meaning as impairment in the actual disability prong because terms appearing in several places in statutory text generally read the same way each time it appears.
  9. 42 U.S.C. §12102(1)(C) refers to “such an impairment,” which necessarily refers back to 42 U.S.C. §12102(1)(A).
  10. So, in regarded as cases a plaintiff has to show the employer knew the employee had an actual impairment or perceived the employee to have such an impairment at the time of the adverse employment action. Further, that impairment must not be transitory and minor.
  11. When 42 U.S.C. §12102(3)(A) is read most naturally, a person is regarded as a person with disability only if she is subject to termination because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment. That is, an employer does not fire or otherwise discriminate against an employee because of a perceived physical impairment unless the employer actually perceives the employee to have that impairment. So, 42 U.S.C. §12102(3)(A) does not extend to an employer’s belief that an employee might contract or develop an impairment in the future.
  12. While it is absolutely true that the ADA has to be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals, the court still concludes that the terms of the ADA protect anyone who experiences discrimination as a result of a current, past, or perceived disability and not a potential future disability.
  13. The EEOC’s own interpretive guidance, a body of experience and informed judgment that the court may properly resort to for guidance, states that a predisposition to developing an illness or disease is not a physical impairment.
  14. In the EEOC’s appendix to the regulations, the EEOC says that it is important to distinguish between conditions that are impairment and physical, psychological, environmental, cultural, and economic characteristics that are not impairments. That same appendix says that characteristic predisposition to illness or disease did not constitute a physical impairment under the ADA. So, if a predisposition to developing a disease in the future is not a physical impairment, then the court simply didn’t see how the plaintiff’s heightened risk of developing the disease of Ebola in the future by visiting Ghana constitutes a physical impairment either.
  15. While it is true that the phrase “being regarded as having such an impairment,” contains present tense verbs (present tense can include the future), the plain language of the ADA in the context of this provision indicates that being regarded as does not apply to the future.
  16. The 11th Circuit also wasn’t buying that regarded as should be read as being regarded as having an imminent impairment because that would be adding a word to the statute that doesn’t exist.
  17. The statutory text of the ADA is such that the employer must perceive the employee as having a current existing impairment at the time of the alleged discrimination.

 

II

Court’s Reasoning Association Discrimination

 

  1. The association discrimination provision is intended to protect qualified individuals from adverse job actions based on unfounded stereotypes and assumptions arising from the employee’s relationship with particular persons with disabilities.
  2. A prima facie claim for association discrimination means showing: 1) plaintiff was subjected to an adverse employment action; 2) plaintiff was qualified for the job at that time; 3) plaintiff’s employer knew at that time that she had a relative or associate with a disability; and 4) the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances raising a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative or associate was a determining factor in the employer’s decision.
  3. While the nature of the relationship in question does not have to be family (see 29 C.F.R. §1630.8), a plaintiff does have to show an association or relationship with a specific person with a disability or persons with a disability (see 42 U.S.C. §12112(b)(4).
  4. Plaintiff’s claim fails because plaintiff did not plausibly allege that the employer knew the plaintiff had an association with a specific individual with a disability in Ghana when it terminated her employment.
  5. Alleging plaintiff might come in the contact with certain unknown individuals by traveling in Ghana is too attenuated a connection for stating an association discrimination claim because that kind of claim requires both a known association and a known disability.
  6. EEOC failed to plausibly allege a sufficient association or relationship with unknown individuals with Ebola. After all, plaintiff was not traveling to Ghana to assist with the Ebola epidemic. It isn’t good enough to allege that plaintiff might come into contact with those individuals by traveling in the country.
  7. Generalize references to association with persons with disabilities or to advocacy for a group of persons with disabilities are not sufficient to state a claim for association discrimination under the ADA.
  8. The EEOC did not cite to any case involving the association discrimination claim based upon the employer’s belief about an employee’s potential causal association with unknown people with disabilities.
  9. An employer may fire an employee for good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous facts, or for no reason at all so long as its action is not for discriminatory reason contrary to federal law.

 

III

Miscellaneous Matters

 

  1. The 11th Circuit agrees that the lower court was justified in refusing to allow the EEOC to amend its complaint to add an interference claim because the plaintiff had no right granted or protected by the ADA to begin with;
  2. The 11th Circuit agreed with the plaintiff that the District Court erred in not allowing her to intervene in the lawsuit because plaintiff as a matter of right has the right to intervene in the lawsuit. Nevertheless, since plaintiff had no underlying ADA rights to begin with, denying the intervention was harmless error;
  3. Judge Jordan concurred. He was of the opinion that the clear statutory language was such that the majority opinion got it right. However, he did write to state that the policy behind the ADA supported the plaintiff’s position. In particular, the ADA was enacted in part to eliminate the sort of stereotyping allowing employers to see their employees primarily as their disability. Also, citing to Shell, which was discussed in the original Massage Envy blog entry, Judge Jordan says the EEOC position that “regarded as,” encompasses a decision made by an employer based on a perception that an employee is going to suffer experience a disability in the future makes a lot of sense.
  4. Judge Jordan would have also decided the question of whether the EEOC had to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. He also says that he would have decided in favor of the EEOC that the exhaustion of administrative remedies doctrine does not apply to the EEOC.

 

IV

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. The contrary view to this decision was expressed by the court deciding Shell.
  2. The 11th Circuit has been very pro-person with a disability of late. So, one wonders whether a petition for rehearing en banc will not be sought. Appeal to the United States Supreme Court? With respect to the United States Supreme Court, it is true that United States Supreme Court is not friendly to people with disabilities with respect to employment matters. However, United States Supreme Court of late has been very interested in looking at the rights of people with disabilities broadly outside of the employment context, such as here and here, for example. Not at all clear to me even with the configuration of this court, how the Supreme Court might decide this.
  3. The Shell case has several arguments that could be used to convince an en banc court that this panel didn’t get it right. These arguments appear below in ¶ ¶ 4-8 of this section. Keep in mind, the facts in Shell, dealing with obesity, were much more obvious that the employer perceived a disability than they are in Massage Envy. Also, the “voluntary,” conduct in Shell was much less of an issue there than it is in Massage Envy. So, Massage Envy certainly has an argument that Shell is distinguishable. I realize in the original blog entry that I didn’t see how the two cases could be distinguished, but upon further review, there is a possibility that they can be. After all, it is football season. So, we always have, “upon further review.”
  4. The policy behind the ADA, as Judge Jordan mentioned, is such that regarding a person as having a future disability is protected by the ADA.
  5. The ADA makes quite a point about individualized analysis needing to be done just about everywhere. That certainly wasn’t the case when Massage Envy terminated the plaintiff.
  6. A distinction exists between being predisposed to illness generally v. being predisposed to developing a disability subject to the ADA.
  7. The employer acted upon worst-case scenarios derived from precisely the sort of myths, fears, or stereotype the ADA was meant to guard against.
  8. The 11th Circuit ignores that the ADA prevents an employer from adopting policies, practices, and procedures that screen out people with disabilities.
  9. If the 11th Circuit decision holds, does that mean employers have free reign to terminate employees with genetic conditions that will manifest themselves later? Will the distinction in those kinds of cases be “voluntary,” conduct?
  10. 11th Circuit cites to the EEOC’s appendix on more than one occasion. The appendix is essentially the EEOC interpreting its own regulations. As we know from our discussion in Kisor v. Wilkie, it is far from a certain conclusion that the EEOC’s interpretation of its own regulations will automatically get credited as the go to deciding factor.
  11. I agree with the court that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say regarded as must be read as regarding as having an imminent impairment.
  12. The Circuit’s are splitting on what association discrimination is. The 11th Circuit has a far broader notion of association discrimination than the Seventh and Second Circuits (see, here). As we discussed in this blog entry, in the Second and Seventh Circuits, association discrimination only applies under certain narrow factual situations. The 11th Circuit decision doesn’t do that. Another Circuit court split that tees up for the Supreme Court.
  13. It is not a foregone conclusion to me that the actual disability prong must dictate the same conclusion with respect to the regarded as prong when it comes to whether a future impairment is part of the regarded as definition. You could argue that the regarded as prong essentially functions as an adjective modifying the actual disability prong.
  14. The 11th Circuit uses “because of,” several times in its opinion. Causation under title I is “on the basis of,” as we have discussed many times before, such as here.

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