Second Circuit Court of Appeals Recognizes Hostile Work Environment Claim Under the ADA

Q.  An employee at one of my company’s facilities in New York recently complained to his supervisor that his coworkers made fun of his disability. Can an employee with a disability file a “hostile work environment” claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act?

A.  On March 6, 2019, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the first time that hostile work environment claims are available to plaintiffs under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). With its decision in Fox v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, the Second Circuit joins the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Tenth Circuits, which likewise have found that hostile work environment claims are cognizable under the ADA.

In Fox v. Costco, the plaintiff suffered from Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, conditions which manifested in verbal tics and other behavioral issues.  He alleged that, following a change in management, he was subjected to a hostile work environment by a new manager, who reprimanded the plaintiff for his work on certain tasks that non-disabled individuals performed in the same way but were not reprimanded for.  Later, the employer disciplined the plaintiff following complaints from customers regarding his behavior, which included an incident where he told a customer that she was “the love of his life.”  After investigating these incidents, the employer suspended the plaintiff for several days and transferred him to another job with the same pay and benefits.

Even after the transfer, however, the plaintiff alleged that his new supervisor made harassing comments to him. In addition, his coworkers began mimicking his behavioral tics, allegedly taunting him with comments such as “hut-hut-hike,” a mocking reference to a behavioral tic in which plaintiff sometimes crouched like a football player to touch the floor before moving forward.  The plaintiff alleged that the employer’s managers witnessed these comments over a period of “months and months,” but failed to act.  After plaintiff had a panic attack at work one day, he went out on indefinite medical leave and did not return to work.

The district court granted summary judgment to the employer on the plaintiff’s claims for hostile work environment, disparate treatment, failure to accommodate, and retaliation under the ADA and New York State Human Rights Law. Regarding the hostile work environment claim, the district court found that the plaintiff failed to prove that the alleged conduct was sufficiently “severe and pervasive” because he offered no details regarding the persistence of the “hut-hut-hike” comments, such as how many times the comments were made per shift, week and/or month.  The district court also ruled that the conduct and comments at issue were not objectively hostile and abusive.

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff’s claims for disparate treatment, retaliation, and failure to accommodate. However, the Second Circuit also found that the plaintiff offered enough evidence to present the claim to a jury to decide “whether the frequency and severity of the mockery rose to the level of an objectively hostile work environment.”  Specifically, the plaintiff’s testimony that his coworkers mocked his disability for months—in the presence of managers who did nothing to prevent the comments—was sufficient to defeat summary judgment.

The court based its decision on the plain language of the ADA, which prohibits employers from discriminating “against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to . . . terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” As the court explained, this language was borrowed from Title VII, and since the ADA “echoes and expressly refers to Title VII” and Title VII allows for a hostile work environment claim, the same standard should be applied to a hostile work environment claim under the ADA.

Having found that the ADA can serve as a basis for a hostile work environment claim, the court proceeded to analyze whether the plaintiff presented evidence that the alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to meet the standard. The appeals court rejected the district court’s finding that the plaintiff was required to present specific evidence “regarding the number of times the comments were made per shift, week and/or month” in order to show that the harassment was pervasive.  In this respect, the Second Circuit explained, “[t]he district court demanded too much of [plaintiff].”  Instead, the plaintiff was required to demonstrate only that the conduct he complained about was “objectively abusive.”

In light of this decision, now may be a good time to emphasize to managers and supervisors that they must take action if they become aware of employees making inappropriate remarks in the workplace based on an individual’s protected status, including disability.

Rogers Stevens

EEOC Issues Guidance Interpreting National Origin Discrimination

Q:  What does it mean to discriminate against someone based on their national origin?

A:  Title VII prohibits employers from acting in a way that would have the purpose or effect or discriminating against an employee because of his or her national origin.

But what does the term “discrimination based on national origin” really mean?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) recently issued an Enforcement Guidance on this subject. Although the EEOC’s position at times is broader than controlling case law, the Enforcement Guidance is helpful because it offers insight into how the EEOC will investigate claims of alleged national origin discrimination in the future.  It is significant that 11 percent of EEOC Charges filed in 2015 contained an allegation of national origin discrimination.

According to the EEOC, national origin discrimination means discrimination because an individual (or his or her ancestors) is from a certain place or has the physical, cultural, or linguistic characteristics of a particular ethnic group. National origin discrimination often overlaps with race, color, or religious discrimination because a national origin group may be associated with (or, according to the EEOC, perceived to be associated with) a particular religion or race.

Title VII prohibits an employer from using certain recruitment practices, such as sending job postings only to ethnically or racially homogenous areas or audiences, or requesting that an employment agency refer only applicants of a particular national origin group. Importantly, employers may not rely on the discriminatory preferences of coworkers or customers as the basis for an adverse employment action in violation of Title VII.  Thus, for example, a retail store may not reject an applicant for not fitting its “all American image.”

Social Security Numbers

The EEOC also addressed an issue that sometimes trips up employers. According to the EEOC, having a policy or practice of screening out candidates who lack a Social Security number implicates Title VII if it disproportionately screens out work-authorized individuals of a certain national origin, such as newly arrived immigrants or new lawful permanent residents, and thus has a disparate impact based on national origin. The EEOC has clarified that newly-hired employees should be allowed to work if they can show that they have applied for but not yet received a Social Security number.

Accents

Under Title VII, an employer may refuse to hire (or fire) an individual if his or her accent interferes materially with job performance. To meet this standard, however, an employer must be able to provide evidence showing that: (1) effective English communication is required to perform job duties; and (2) the individual’s accent materially interferes with his or her ability to communicate in spoken English. Likewise, an English fluency or English proficiency requirement is permissible only if required for the effective performance of the position for which it is imposed.

According to the EEOC, the key is to distinguish a merely discernible accent from one that actually interferes with the spoken communication skills necessary for the job. Evidence of an accent materially interfering with job duties may include documented workplace mistakes attributable to difficulty understanding the individual, assessments from several credible sources who are familiar with the individual and the job, or specific substandard job performance that is linked to failures in spoken communication.

Hostile Work Environment Claims

The EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance also issued an important reminder to employers that harassment based on an employee’s national origin could give rise to liability for a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment based on national origin can take different forms, including ethnic slurs, ridicule, intimidation, workplace graffiti, physical violence, or other offensive conduct directed toward an individual because of his birthplace, ethnicity, culture, language, dress, or foreign accent.  None of this behavior should be tolerated in the workplace.

Promising Practices

The EEOC lists several “promising practices” for employers to consider to avoid liability for national origin discrimination:

  • Use a variety of recruitment methods to attract as diverse a pool of job seekers as possible;
  • Identify your Company as an equal opportunity employer;
  • Implement clearly-defined criteria for evaluating performance;
  • Distribute a policy prohibiting harassment based on national origin and train employees regarding their rights and obligations under the policy.

Tracey E. Diamond