In ADA Website Accessibility Cases, Remediation May Be a Successful Defense

Q.  What can I do to protect my company from lawsuits claiming that our website is not accessible to visually-impaired individuals?

A.  Companies, universities and other organizations around the country continue to face an onslaught of lawsuits brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) alleging that commercial websites cannot be appropriately accessed by visually impaired individuals. A recent opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York provides a potential roadmap for companies to stave off litigation by taking action to remediate barriers to full website accessibility.

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Jeffrey M. Goldman, Tracey E. Diamond, and Victoria D. Summerfield

Two Federal Agencies Make it Easier to Establish Independent Contractor Status

Q.  What is the standard for determining whether a worker is an independent contractor for purposes of federal wage and hour laws and union organizing conduct?

A.  Recently, both the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued documents supporting independent contractor status, evidencing the more pro-employer stance of the Trump administration as compared to the Obama administration. Although those documents — an opinion letter from the DOL and an advice memorandum from the NLRB’s Office of General Counsel — apply only to misclassification claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), respectively, they provide helpful guidance to companies on structuring their independent contractor relationships to minimize the risk of a misclassification claim. Companies should be mindful, however, that other laws — such as state wage and hour, unemployment compensation and workers’ compensation statutes — may impose higher burdens for proving that individuals are independent contractors.

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Susan K. Lessack and Tracey E. Diamond

New York City Passes Law Prohibiting Pre-Employment Marijuana Testing

Q: I heard New York City is banning employers from doing pre-employment drug testing for marijuana. What do I need to know?

A: Effective May 10, 2020, New York City employers are prohibited from testing prospective employees for marijuana or tetrahydrocannabinols (the active ingredient in marijuana) as a condition of employment.  The law applies to all prospective employees in New York City, regardless of whether the employer is located in New York City.

The law has a number of exceptions, including for positions that require a commercial driver’s license or the supervision or care of children, medical patients, or vulnerable persons. The law also does not apply to drug testing required by certain contracts and laws, including federal or state statutes, regulations, or orders that require drug testing for the purpose of safety or security.

The law reflects the growing acceptance of marijuana in New York, both for recreational and medicinal use. Under existing New York law, possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana has been decriminalized, and it is legal for a certified patient to possess and use medical marijuana.  Existing New York law also specifically protects registered certified medical marijuana users from adverse employment actions based on their health conditions and associated marijuana use.

The law itself is quite short, and leaves a number of questions unanswered, such as whether the law has any impact on marijuana testing of current employees, and whether the law applies to New York City residents who apply for positions outside of the city. The City is expected to release rules addressing such details in advance of the effective date.

To prepare for the new law, employers should update employment applications, job postings, and drug testing policies. Employers should also analyze whether any of their positions are exempt from the new law.

Jessica Rothenberg

NLRB to Issue New Rules on Whether Student Workers Can Unionize

Q.  Are students who work in connection with their studies considered to be “employees” and therefore able to unionize?

A.  In a significant development for private colleges and universities, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that it intends to propose rules that would establish a “standard for determining whether students who perform services at private colleges or universities in connection with their studies are ‘employees’” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB currently projects that the proposed rules will be issued in September 2019. It is widely expected that the rules, which will be proposed by the Republican-controlled Board, will make it more difficult for students to be classified as “employees” for the purpose of forming unions.

For more information, click here.

Christopher J. Moran & Lee E. Tankle

Woof Woof: Accommodating Animals in the Workplace

Q.  An employee has requested that he be allowed to bring his Labradoodle to work with him. Do we have to accommodate this request?

A.  Pets are accompanying their masters everywhere these days. It is not unusual to see pets in public areas, including restaurants, and even on airplanes. Likewise, more employees are requesting to bring man’s best friend to work.  Whether an employer has to accommodate such a request depends on whether the employee is qualified individual with a disability and the request for accommodation would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job.  If the workplace is also a place of public accommodation, then the company also should be mindful of the rules under the  Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) for “service animals.”

The ADA defines a service animal as a dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Yes, you did read that correctly.  Miniature horses are covered by the Act, although other animals, such as cats, are not.  Examples of the type of work or tasks performed by service animals include:  (i) guiding a blind employee, (ii) alerting a deaf individual, (iii) pulling a wheelchair, (iv) alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, (v) alerting a diabetic that his or her blood sugar has reached certain high or low levels, (vi) reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, and (vii) calming an employee with a mental health disability during an anxiety attack.  The work or task the service animal has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.

When it is not obvious what service a particular animal provides, a place of accommodation may only ask the following questions: (1) whether the animal is a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task the service animal has been trained to perform. The company may not require the individual to demonstrate that the service animal has been trained to perform a certain task.  Moreover, the ADA does not require that service animals be trained by a professional training program.  Instead, individuals with disabilities have the right to train the service animal themselves.  Likewise, the ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness, or require that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal.

Animals in Private Workplaces

If your workplace is not a place of public accommodation, then the ADA does not have specific rules governing the type of animal allowed.  Employers will need to engage in the interactive process with the employee to determine whether allowing the animal into the workplace will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job without posing an undue hardship on the employer or a direct threat to health and safety in the workplace.  As part of the interactive process, the employer should ask the employee to provide medical documentation of the nature of the disability and way in which the animal would enable the employee to perform his or her job functions.  The employer can provide an alternative accommodation so long as the accommodation would be as effective in enabling the employee to perform the job.

Written Policies

Employers should consider putting a written policy in place, taking into consideration several practices, including, for example, the employee’s responsibility to keep the animal harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls. In addition, a policy can clarify the employee’s responsibility to provide care and food for the animal.  Moreover, an individual with a disability can be asked to remove his animal from the workplace if: (a) the animal is out of control and the employee does not take effective action to control it, (b) the animal is not housebroken; (c) the facility cannot accommodate the animal’s type, size, or weight; or (4) the animal’s presence will compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility.

Significantly, however, a coworker’s allergies or fear of dogs may not be valid reasons for prohibiting animals from the workplace. When a coworker who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility, or modifying work schedules.

–Tracey E. Diamond