Today’s blog entry will be the last substantive blog entry of the year. Next week, is the annual Understanding the ADA greatest hits for 2018. This week’s case deals with the question of what happens when you have both a failure to accommodate and a lack of adverse action. Is the plaintiff out of luck? The case of the day is Exby-Stolley v. Board of County Commissioners, Weld County, Colorado. It came down from the 10th Circuit on October 11, 2018. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; majority opinion; dissenting opinion; and takeaways. The reader is free to focus on any or all of the sections.
The facts are pretty straightforward and are covered in great detail in the opinion. Basically, you have a person that broke her right arm on the job leading to two surgeries. That led to an interactive process that did not satisfy the plaintiff and perhaps miscommunication as well. Instead of pursuing the interactive process to the end, plaintiff resigned. Nevertheless, plaintiff brought suit alleging violations of the ADA. At trial, the jury found that the plaintiff had a disability, but also found that the plaintiff had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that she was discharged from employment. That is, the jury bought the county’s argument that the placement of plaintiff on temporary half-time office duty was not an adverse employment action because she fully agreed with the change, and there was no reduction in pay since the reduction was offset by workers compensation payment. Also, the county took no later action against her because she voluntarily resigned.
- An adverse employment action is an element of a failure to accommodate claim.
- 42 U.S.C. §12112(a) says a covered entity cannot discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, condition, and probative of employment. So, any discrimination has to be in regards to certain features of employment.
- While the language adverse employment action does not appear in the ADA, the terminology is well established in judicial opinions when it comes to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has a very similar provision with respect to its antidiscrimination clause.
- An adverse employment action is one that materially affects the compensation, terms, condition, or privileges of employment.
- In a footnote, the court said that “terms and conditions,” appearing in the ADA’s statutory provisions is very significant because it was the lack of that language that led the United States Supreme Court to say a retaliation claim could be based upon any action, whether or not significant to the employee’s job, that a reasonable employee would have found to be materially adverse.
- The failure to accommodate statutory provision doesn’t change the terms and conditions requirement. Rather, it just sets forth that an employee does not have to show she was treated worse than a person without a disability when he or she brings a failure to accommodate claim. That is, even after proof of the failure to accommodate, the requirement that discrimination be in regard to job application procedures or other terms, condition, or privileges of employment remains.
- For those who don’t believe an adverse employment action is required for a failure to accommodate claim, they may be just getting confused by the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework, which has to be modified in order to apply to failure to accommodate claims.
- Since McDonnell Douglas can only apply to discriminatory failure to hire, courts have modified the test to other circumstances by saying that the employer took an adverse employment action.
- While proving a failure to accommodate claim does not involve showing a person with a disability is treated worse than a person without a disability, that hardly means none of the requirements set forth in McDonnell Douglas apply to failure to accommodate claims. That is, McDonnell Douglas enables the plaintiff to prove her claim in its entirety, not just that she was treated worse than people not in her protected class.
- The reason to require that the discriminatory act involves an adverse employment action is because not every discriminatory act by an employer entitles an employee to a remedy under the employment discrimination statutes. The discriminatory act must be in regard to, or with respect to, the terms or conditions of employment. In fact, there could be a failure to accommodate that does not result in termination and is not otherwise connected to an adverse employment action. Mere inconvenience or an alteration of job responsibilities is not an adverse employment action.
- Once it is recognized that requiring an adverse employment action simply means requiring the discrimination be in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, it necessarily follows that the requirement applies to every discrimination claim under the ADA, including failure to accommodate claims. Cases cited by the dissent to the contrary are dicta.
- Several Circuits have explicitly required an adverse employment action in failure to accommodate cases (1st, 2d Cir., 7th Cir., 8th Cir., and 9th Cir.).
- In a footnote, the court said that it is unlikely an employee would pursue a failure to accommodate claim when there is no adverse employment action.
Dissenting Opinion by Judge Holmes
- It was reversible error for the judge to instruct the jury that an adverse employment action element is required for failure to accommodate claims under the ADA.
- The cases the majority said are dicta are not dicta at all.
- The 10th Circuit has previously distinguished between ADA discrimination claims based upon a disparate treatment theory and those based upon a failure to accommodate theory making clear the content and structure of its analysis that it is only the disparate treatment theory that includes an adverse employment action element. The court’s disregard of an adverse employment action in that case was intentional because an adverse employment action was irrelevant in applying the standards defining whether an employer had met its reasonable accommodation obligations.
- The majority’s confusion stems from its failure to clearly differentiate between disparate treatment and failure to accommodate claims with the former requiring an adverse action showing, but not the latter.
- In a failure to accommodate case, the purpose of the plaintiff’s prima facie case is not to raise a rebuttable presumption of discriminatory intent, but rather to determine the factual question of whether the employer complied with the statutory obligations to provide reasonable accommodation.
- Any failure to provide reasonable accommodation for a disability is necessarily because of a disability. That is, the accommodations are only deemed reasonable if they are needed because of the disability and no proof of particular discriminatory intent is necessary.
- In a footnote, the dissenting judge said that the EEOC in its regulations and interpretive guidance on the ADA also suggests that an adverse employment action is not an element of failure to accommodate claim. In particular, it says that once the plaintiff has shown the accommodation he or she needs is reasonable, the burden shifts to the defendant to provide case specific evidence proving the reasonable accommodation would cause an undue hardship. Nowhere in that language is there any adverse action requirement.
- Congress has already determined that a failure to offer reasonable accommodation to a qualified employee with a disability is unlawful discrimination.
- In a footnote, the dissent said that it doesn’t make a lot of sense that federal judges would cavalierly tolerate the serious risks going with omitting an essential element of a claim from their decisions as that would mislead the public and the lower courts regarding the state of the relevant ADA law. Instead, the dissent believed that the omission of adverse employment action from the elements necessary for proving a failure to accommodate claim, was intentional. It defies logic to suggest otherwise.
- It doesn’t follow that the language in 42 U.S.C. §12112(a) pertaining to other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment is necessarily a shorthand for an adverse action requirement and case law is not to the contrary.
- Reading this decision is very strange. The majority and the dissent reach opposite conclusions interpreting the same exact case law and the same exact statutory provisions. In my experience, you usually don’t see such a stark differentiation that way.
- I certainly look for a split to develop among the Circuits considering the ambiguity of case law and the statutory provisions. It would be very unclear as to what would happen at the United States Supreme Court with respect to the question of whether a failure to accommodate claim involves an adverse action. It is true that persons with disabilities have not fared well at the Supreme Court in employment matters, but a failure to accommodate may or may not resonate differently.
- It is not as unlikely as the majority seems to suggest that a failure to accommodate claim does not involve an adverse action. It happens more often than you would realize, especially if the employer has far thinking management counsel, and the employer is well trained on the rights of people with disabilities.
- I also don’t see how the language of “in regards to…,” necessarily requires an adverse action, particularly since adverse action is not the same thing as any action.
- If this decision prevails, plaintiff lawyers will have to get creative in their advocacy to show that a failure to accommodate a person with a disability has very serious consequences to the person with the disability and is certainly adverse. This means a plaintiff lawyer will have to educate the judge as to how the person with the disability perceives what happens in a failure to accommodate case and how the consequences of failing to accommodate are very real indeed.
- It will be also interesting to see how other courts deal with the issue of many Court leaving off an adverse employment action from their listing of what is required in the prima facie case approving a failure to accommodate claim. The majority passes that off as dicta, while the dissent views those omissions as critical.
- For plaintiffs, education about the mindset of a person with a disability is going to be absolutely critical. If you are on the defense side, this case gives you lots of leeway to make sure that a plaintiff with a disability continues in the same way as they are in their current employment in some manner or another until the interactive process is fully completed.
- This case could have been handled completely differently by the court. That is, instead of focusing on adverse action, the court could have found that the plaintiff was responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process by resigning and therefore, the defendant prevails.
- For a case involving a failure to accommodate where adverse action is never mentioned and certainly seem to not be part of the equation, we have already talked about one, Silva v. Baptist Health South Florida Inc., which we discussed in this blog entry.