Does the ADA encompass a hostile work environment claim? (I have mentioned hostile environment before but that was in the context of the Office of Civil Rights and education). According to the Northern District of Oklahoma in Callahan v. Communication Graphics, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172148 (N.D. Okla. December 12, 2014), the answer is yes. This case also has an interesting piece in it about pleadings with respect to ADA cases as well. As is my usual custom, I have divided the blog entry into categories: facts, court’s reasoning, and takeaways. The reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.
In this particular case, the plaintiff worked for Communication Graphics for five years where he worked on two different machines, a wrapper and a slitter. More specifically, he alleged that his coworkers, supervisors and managers mistook his ADD for symptoms of old age, alcoholism and mental illness and intentionally harassed him to make him sick. He was called old, senile, crazy, psychotic, and spaz. He alleged that the harassment was instigated by a safety manager and caused him physical reactions, including high blood pressure and a mild stroke. Further, he alleged that after reporting their harassment, his supervisor did nothing to prevent the harassing behavior. Further, after enduring the harassment for a couple of years, he complained to three different people. Instead of the harassment stopping, the harassment escalated and he was: excluded from production meetings; no longer considered for employee of the month; and eventually terminated. Also, when the plaintiff tried to report a work-related neck injury, his supervisor tried to talk him out of it. The next day, he was told by two different people three reasons why he could be fired. Plaintiff alleged that they did this in order to prevent him from reporting his neck injury. Ten months later, when he finally saw a doctor for the injury and the doctor placed him on work restrictions, plaintiff alleged that the defendant required him to do work against the restrictions and then moved him from the wrapper to the slitter machine (the slitter machine did not comply with the restrictions and worsened his neck condition). He then started hearing rumors that he would be fired, and he was fired two months later. Finally, in his pleadings, the plaintiff did not explain how his ADD substantially limited a major life activity.*
* The case also contains a same-sex harassment claim but that is not addressed in this entry.
1. Citing to a 10th circuit case from 2004, the court holds that the ADA does encompass a hostile work environment claim because of the parallel purposes and remedial structures of title VII and the ADA.
2. Since a hostile work environment claim is actionable under the ADA, the court then had to set forth what you would have to show to make a prima facie case of that claim. In particular, a plaintiff would have to show: 1) he or she is a member of a protected group (in this case, a person with a disability as defined by the ADA); 2) he or she was subject to unwelcome harassment; 3) the harassment was based on the alleged disability; and 4) due to the harassment’s severity or pervasiveness, the harassment altered a term, condition, or privilege of the plaintiff’s employment and created an abusive working environment.
3. The court believed that the allegations were sufficient to get the plaintiff beyond Iqbal and Twombly.
4. With respect to the plaintiff not pleading that ADD substantially limited him in a major life activity, the Northern District of Oklahoma concluded that even under Twombly and Iqbal, a plaintiff is not required to provide particulars about the major life activity limited by the impairment or explain how the impairment limits that activity at the pleading stage.
1. The plaintiff was pro se. Thus, from the defense perspective, they should not assume that just because the plaintiff filed the claim on his or her own, that they can coast. I am seeing a surprising number of claims filed pro se that get to first base. That said, if a pro se plaintiff does get to first base, it is hard for me to believe that a pro se plaintiff could navigate discovery without an attorney. That said, having gotten to first base, it would probably make it easier for a pro se plaintiff to retain counsel for the discovery portion of the case.
2. A strong argument can be made that hostile work environment claims involving disabilities are actionable under the ADA because, as mentioned by the court in this case, of the parallel purposes and remedial structures of title VII and the ADA.
3. While this case says that pleadings do not have to contain a description of how the disability substantially limits a major life activity, preventing problems later demands that a plaintiff not rely on this. That is, to avoid unnecessary risks (it is not obvious to me as to why listing how a disability substantially limits a major life activity would not be required by Iqbal and Twombly), a plaintiff should list how the disability substantially limits one or more major life activities.
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