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Archive for the ‘disability’ Category

Department of Labor May Raise Wages for Disabled Federal Contractors, After All

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Mike ElkLast week, In These Times broke the news that Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors would not apply to the thousands of disabled workers who currently make subminimum wages—some as low as pennies an hour—under “14(c) programs.” Now, In These Times has learned that the Department of Labor is examining its position on this subject.

In a Tuesday morning interview on the Diane Rehm Show on Washington, D.C.’s WAMU, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez referred to 14(c)—an exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act that excludes workers with disabilities from minimum-wage protections if they are employed in certified training programs—as “a provision of law that really has worked to the detriment of people with disabilities.”

“[That is] one of the issues that we are examining right now as we prepare to finalize the executive order,” he continued.

Perez’s statement follows a letter issued by more than 25 civil rights, disability and labor organizations calling on the Obama administration to eliminate the use of subminimum wage for federal contractors. “All employees of federal contractors should mean all employees, regardless of disability status,” the letter read. “We believe … that it is both economically sound and morally just to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the same wage protections as those without.”

Some disability advocates maintain that jobs paying subminimum wages under 14(c)—known as “sheltered workshops”—must exist in order to give disabled people employment opportunities.

Others, however, argue that several states have phased out the use of sheltered workshops with few ill effects. In 2003, for example, Vermont eliminated such programs altogether. Instead, the state focused on providing training, support and transition services to people with disabilities and their employers. Today, 40 percent of Vermonters with disabilities are employed in “integrated employment” jobs, compared to less than 20 percent of workers with disabilities nationwide.

Advocates say that if the Obama administration were to eliminate 14(c) programs for federal contractors, state and local governments might follow a similar course. In the meantime, they say, they’re heartened by the unprecedented level of support they’re receiving from other organizations, including groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I think the real story here is how the civil rights community is weighing in … on the side of the disabled,” says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “This is creating new ground to engage the broader civil rights community on disability issues.”

“14(c) workers can and should do productive work,” says Susan Mizner of the ACLU. “They should be paid a living wage, just as every worker should be paid a living wage. This goes to principles of equity and fairness—issues that are at the core of the 14th Amendment and key to all civil rights movements.”

At the moment, it’s unclear what Obama’s next move will be in terms of raising minimum wage across the board. But Ne’eman reports that there are active conversations taking place between the federal administration and disability advocates.

“This is an issue of fundamental equity for disabled workers,” says Ne’eman. “In the coming weeks, we will be working to send a clear message to the administration that the time for action is now. Twenty-four years after the ADA, disabled workers deserve a fair deal.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on February 6, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

Obama’s Wage Hike For Federal Contractors Won’t Apply to Disabled Workers

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Mike ElkIn his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama announced that he would issue an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for workers employed on federal contracts. The order has yet to be issued, so it’s unclear exactly how many and what type of workers will be covered. However, one group is already slated for exclusion: workers in a special government contracting program for people with disabilities.

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, says that disability advocates were informed on a conference call Wednesday with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez that Obama’s executive order will not apply to federal contractors that use “14(c) programs”—in which workers with disabilities are paid subminimum wages.

Under the 14(c) exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers with disabilities are excluded from minimum-wage protections if they are employed in certified training programs. Though there is no official government data on the size of these programs, the National Council on Disabilities estimates that the federal government employs thousands of workers under 14(c). Nationwide, approximately 420,000 disabled Americans are employed in 14(c) programs coordinated through federal, state and local governments, and legally paid below the minimum, with some only making pennies per hour.

As Working In These Times reported last March, deep divisions remain within the disability community and even among top Congressional Democrats over whether disabled workers employed in 14(c) programs should be paid below the minimum wage. Some disability advocates—led by ACCSES, which represents employers of disabled workers under the 14(c) programs—claim that these programs provide valuable training to help transition people with disabilities into jobs, and that a minimum wage requirement would make that mission impossible.

Other advocates, however, say that the programs don’t provide meaningful training and rarely lead to outside jobs.  A 2001 study by the federal General Accountability Office (GAO) found that only 5 percent of workers employed in 14(c)-sheltered workplace programs left to take regular “integrated employment” jobs. These critics say the programs contribute to the well-documented cycle of poverty for those with disabilities: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a person with a disability is three times as likely to live in poverty as a person without a disability.

On Thursday, the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal advisory board, issued a statement on Thursday afternoon blasting the Obama administration’s decision to exempt workers with disabilities from the minimum-wage increase.

According to the National Council on Disability’s statement, “NCD believes that the Section 14(c) program is a policy relic from the 1930s, when discrimination was inevitable because service systems were based on a charity model, rather than empowerment and self-determination, and when societal low expectations for people with disabilities colored policymaking … If the administration agrees with this principle and wants to stamp out income inequality for all Americans, including Americans with disabilities, we urge you to reconsider what was shared on yesterday’s White House conference call and explicitly state in the Executive Order that the increase in the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors applies to all employees of federal contractors, including thousands of Americans with disabilities who are currently being paid less than minimum wage under the Section 14(c) program.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. According to Ne’eman of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, officials told him on Wednesday’s conference that the Obama administration believes it doesn’t have the authority to raise the wages of 14(c) workers.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network disputes this claim. In a legal memo put out Thursday, it concludes that “payment of subminimum wages to contract and sub-contract workers with disabilities is not required by statute [but] is left to the direction of the Department of Labor…As a result, to the extent that the president enjoys the authority to direct executive agencies to set a minimum wage for workers on all federal contracts, he may also direct those agencies to eliminate subminimum wage payment of contract workers with disabilities.”

To Ne’eman, the administration’s decision makes no sense. “We think they [have the authority] and hope our analysis will convince them,” he wrote in an email to Working In These Times. “If the administration has the power to raise the wages of workers without disabilities employed by government contractors, they have the power to do the same for workers with disabilities. There is no statute requiring government contractors to pay less than minimum wage to workers with disabilities.”

This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on January 30, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

Cancer Victim Fired For Disclosing Brain Tumor Has Claim For Disability Discrimination

Monday, June 13th, 2011

ellen simonA U.S. District Court in Texas ruled that a  Houston P.F.Chang’s restaurant may have violated the Americans with Disability Act when it fired one of its restaurant managers three days after he disclosed that he had a brain tumor.

On June 8, 2009 Jason Meinelt was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He told his boss, Michael Brown, the same day and also told him that he would probably have surgery in August and could be out for six to eight months.  Brown was supervised by Glenn Piner.  Bown told Piner immediately about Meinelt’s condition.

Two days later, Piner began an audit involving  employee clock-out time punches.

The next day, Meinelt was fired for improperly editing employees’ time records. Meinelt testified that he was “completely baffled” and “shocked” about the firing and that editing time was a common practice among all of the managers including the ones who preceded him.

P.F. Chang’s first argument, that Meinelt’s brain tumor was not a disability, was rejected by the Court. Under the ADA, a disability is a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  The ADA was amended in 2008, and the amendments specifically included cancer in its definition of what may be considered a disability. As the Court noted,

Under ADAAA, “a major life activity includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to,… normal cell growth .. [and] brain .. functions. 42 U.S.C. s. 12102(2)(B). The disability test can be met by actually suffering an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or “being regarded as having such impairment.”

Therefore, since Meinelt was terminated after the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 came into effect, he was covered under its “more expansive definition” of disability according to the Court. As to P.F. Chang’s contention that Meinelt was fired because of the time entries, the Court had this to say:

[T]here is undisputed evidence of the temporal coincidence of Meinelt revealing his medical condition and the employer’s decision to fire him. The record contains ample evidence supporting an inference that Piner’s belief that Meinelt had improperly edited time was not the reason he terminated Meinelt. Piner fired Meinelt only tree days after Brown told Piner about Meinelt’s tumor. ..(citations omitted)

Summary judgment on the ADA claim is denied.

This decision means that Meinelt has the opportunity to take his case to the jury but it has broader implications.  It’s another victory for cancer victims who have been discriminated against by their employers.

Before the ADA amendments, these types of cases were routinely thrown out by courts which narrowly interpreted the ADA and held that the employees with cancer were not disabled — and therefore not protected from disability discrimination. Those same arguments, raised by P.F. Chang’s in this case, failed and it’s about time. For another case on point  see here. For more about cancer discrimination and the workplace, see here. For the Meinelt opinion, see here.

This blog originally appeared on Employee Rights Post on June 10, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. Today, Ellen offers legal advice to individuals with legal problems surrounding employment rights, age/gender/race or disability discrimination, workplace retaliation and sexual harassment.

Employee Rights Short Takes: Scalia's Impartiality Questioned, Two Punitive Damage Awards, Disability Discrimination And More

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Here are a few employee rights Short Takes worth noting:

Scalia Says Due Process Clause Does Not Prohibit Sex Discrimination

For those who may have missed it, Justice Antonin Scalia recently expressed his view that neither women nor gays are protected against discrimination under the 14th amendment of the Constitution. The statement was made in an interview this month published in the California Lawyer.

While it’s newsworthy because of the shock value alone, Scalia has expressed this view before. All one has to do is read the 1996 decision of  United States v. Virginia, in which Scalia was the only justice to dissent from the Supreme Court’s decision to end the Virginia Military Institute’s 157 year old state supported practice of only accepting male students.

Not surprisingly, Scalia’s recent remarks angered liberals and was criticized by many legal scholars. Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-President of the Women’s Law Center, as reported in the Huffington Post, called  Scalia’s comments “shocking in light of the decades of precedents and the numbers of justices who have agreed that there is protection in the 14th Amendment against sex discrimination, and struck down many, many laws in many, many areas on the basis of that protection.”

Scalia’s comments stem from his view that the 14th amendment , when written, was not intended to ban sex discrimination. As to Scalia’s originalist view, Eric Segall, a professor at Georgia State College of Law, had this to say in his letter to the editor published in the New York Times:

On issues of affirmative action, gender rights, gun control and campaign finance reform, among most other controversial constitutional law questions, Justice Scalia does not truly use an originalist methodology. Much more of his judicial style can be gleaned from looking at the Republican Party Platform than at the drafters of either the original Constitution or the 14th amendment.

For Justice Scalia, it is about results, not process, no matter how much he protests otherwise.

In the same vein, Scalia also also made news with the announcement of his role as a featured speaker at  Michele Bachmann’s tea party / “Constitutional Conservative Caucus” later this month. For more about questions raised regarding Justice Scalia’s impartiality, read Nan Aaron here.

EEOC Settles Disability Discrimination Case For 3.2 Million

Jewel –Osco’s parent company Supervalu  Inc. has agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle a federal lawsuit claiming that the company discriminated against its disabled employees.

The suit, filed by the EEOC, alleged that Jewel-Osco fired employees with disabilities at the end of their leaves rather than bringing them back to work with reasonable accommodations.

According to the EEOC, roughly 1000 employees at Jewel-Osco stores were fired under this policy. One employee who will benefit from the settlement is Rosemary Bednarek who is representative of the class.

Bednarek injured her back lifting boxes of chicken at a Jewel-Osco store in 2004. When she was able to return to work, her doctor advised that she should not lift more than 20 pounds but the company would not accommodate the restriction. Bednarek re-injured her back and was fired a year later.

This is a great settlement that will not only benefit the plaintiffs in the case, but also serve to remind employers of their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accommodate employees with disabilities — including those who are injured on the job.

Two New Decisions On Punitive Damages

We do not often see employment law decisions in which punitive damages are addressed, so to see two in the last few weeks is worth talking about.

Generally speaking, punitive damages are available in some cases in which the defendant engaged in a deliberate or reckless disregard of the rights of others.

The jury, in determining the amount of the punitive damage award, is permitted to consider a number of factors, including a sum of money that would discourage the defendant from engaging in the conduct in the future as well as the income and assets of the defendant. Some large punitive damage awards are challenged on grounds that they violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the cases:

Hamlin v Hampton Lumbar Mills, Inc.:  Plaintiff Ken Hamlin was injured while working at the Hampton Lumbar Mills. When he was released to return to work, the defendant falsely asserting that he was a “safety risk” and refused to to reinstate him as required by Oregon law.

The case went to trial and the jury awarded lost wages of $6000 and punitive damages in the amount of $175, 000. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the punitive damage award was “grossly excessive” under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution and reduced it to a sum equivalent to four times the amount of the compensatory damages.

In an instructive review of the case law on punitive damages, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed holding that a punitive damage award may exceed a single digit multiplier of a compensatory damage award without violating due process or being “grossly excessive.”

The case is an excellent reference point for anyone briefing an argument for punitive damages in an employment case.

Claus v. Intrigue Hotel, LLC:  In this age discrimination case, the jury awarded $50,000 in actual damages and $150,000 in punitive damages in a bifurcated trial. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict in a decision issued late last month.

In brief, Glenda Claus worked for Intrigue Hotels (including its predecessor) since 1984. Her last position was housekeeping supervisor. In 2007, Claus was fired and replaced by a 31 year old employee.

Claus, 63 at the time, testified that she was completely blindsided by the news of her termination. With a record of positive job performance evaluations, a failure to admonish Claus regarding job deficiencies, and replacement with a 31 year old employee with performance issues, the Court of Appeals held that the jury could have rejected Intrigue’s after the fact rationale that Claus was fired for poor performance.

In addition, there was evidence that her new supervisor (Galaviz ) stated he wanted employees who would be at the hotel for the “long haul” and that Claus was “resistant to change.” The Court held that the jury could have reasonably taken these statements to mean that Galaviz did not want older employees and that Claus’s age was a factor in her firing.

The evidence also showed that Galaviz had been engaged as a human resources consultant and had an extensive knowledge of employment law at the time he made these comments and fired Galaviz.

Worth noting is the Court’s statement that the same evidence which supported Claus’s substantive claim for age discrimination also supported her claim for punitive damages  As the Court pointed out,  both Copidas (the owner of the hotel) and Galaviz:

  • knew it was against the law to fire an employee because of age
  • fired a 63 year old employee with a spotless record
  • replaced her with a 31 year old with documented performance problems
  • promoted several younger employees with performance issues
  • altered its rationale for firing Claus several times and created pretextual reasons for firing her

In sum, the Court concluded that the jury’s award of punitive damages was supported by the evidence. The case was remanded to the trial court for an award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs — a great victory for Claus and her lawyer.

This case is a good example of the kind of evidence which supports a claim for age discrimination as well as a claim for punitive damages. As stated above, since we don’t often see decisions affirming a punitive damage award, these cases are worth noting.

This article was originally posted on Employee Rights Post.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

One Shocking Incident Of Disability Discrimination Supports Verdict For Employee

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Judgment For Employee Due To Employer’s Failure To Accommodate

I don’t remember ever reading a case quite like this one. The facts are quite graphic so be prepared. The story revolves around an incident of a store’s failure to accommodate a disability which led to a tragic result.

What Happened In The Case

A woman identified only as A.M. came to America in 1981 from El Salvidor after civil war broke out. She started working at Albertsons in 1987. She worked in various jobs, but at the time of the incident giving rise to the case, she was working as a checker. 

In 2003, A.M. underwent chemotherapy and radiation for cancer of the tonsils and larynx. The treatment affected her salivary glands which caused her to drink large volumes of water and urinate repeatedly.

While at work, A.M. was required to have water with her at all times and needed to go to the bathroom frequently — sometimes as often as every 45 minutes.

Most managers accommodated her but on the evening of February 11, 2005, A.M. encountered a horrific problem.

She worked a shift that day which began at 1:00 p.m. and was scheduled to end at 10:00 p.m.

By 7:00 p.m. there were only three employees in the store – A.M. who was working as checker, another woman who acted as courtesy clerk (and was not allowed to relieve a checker), and Kellie Sampson – the person in charge.

At 8:00 that evening, A.M. told Sampson that she needed take a break. Sampson asked A.M. to wait because a delivery truck was coming

Some time later, A.M., who had a line of customers waiting to check out, called  Sampson and told her again that she needed to go to the bathroom. Sampson told her that she was unloading the merchandise and that she had to wait.

About 10 minutes later, A.M. still had customers in the line. She called Sampson once more and told her that she really had to go. Sampson said that she was busy and unable to come to the front of the store.

Unable to control herself, A.M. urinated while standing at the checkout stand. She was having her menstrual cycle, and so she was drenched with both urine and blood.

Understandably, A.M. was shaky and humiliated though she did not think the customers saw what happened. When Sampson finally got to the front of the store, A.M. went into the bathroom to clean herself.

Sobbing, she called her husband to tell him what happened. A customer observed her crying, asked what was wrong, and A.M. explained that she had wet herself because no one let her go to the bathroom.

The customer helped her to her car. She had a horrible drive home and thought about killing herself.

When she got home, still nervous and crying, she took a long shower and tried to scrub the smell off her. She wouldn’t get out of the shower and her husband had to remove her.

After that, she was unable to return to work and began to deteriorate psychologically. She became listless and withdrawn. She refused to see family and friends. She feared that people would be able to smell the bad odor she sensed about herself.

She had crazy dreams and couldn’t sleep. Each day, she took multiple showers to try and remove bad smells from her body. She shaved off all of her body hair, hoping that the bad smell would go away.

Eventually A.M. told a doctor that had thoughts about killing herself. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital for several days.

She began receiving individual and group therapy and eventually improved. She took fewer showers and began to be less concerned about her smell. She still was withdrawn but eventually was able to go back to work.

The Lawsuit

A.M. filed for damages claiming that Albertsons failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation for her disability in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).

As generally happens where damages for emotional distress are being considered, there was conflicting testimony was presented from from the psychologists and psychiatrists.

For the plaintiff, an expert in psychological treatment and injury testified about A.M.’s post traumatic stress disorder . The expert’s opinion was that A.M.’s emotional distress occurred as a direct result of the February 2005 incident and that she would likely suffer some effect of this disorder for many years.

Two psychiatrists testified on behalf of the defense. Their opinion was that her depression was a result of events that predated the February incident and that  A.M. had been depressed and anxious for most of her life.

The jury returned a verdict in A.M’s favor and awarded damages in the amount of $200,000:

  • $12,000 for past lost wage
  • $40,000 for future medical expenses
  • $148,000 for past emotional distress

The Appeal

Albertsons made several arguments on appeal.

Under the FEHA (like the Americans With Disabilities Act) an employer that fails to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s known physical disability engages in an unlawful employment practice.

Albertsons main contention was that its failure to accommodate was trivial, because it constituted a single incident in the context of a much longer period of successful accommodation (which began in 2004 when A.M. came back to work after her cancer treatment).

In other words, the defense argued that one incident of a failure to accommodate is not enough to violate the law.

The Court of Appeals strongly disagreed and had this to say in its opinion:

The employer’s interpretation would be inconsistent with the statutory purpose to require employers to make reasonable accommodation for their employees’ physical disabilities …

As is demonstrated by A.M.’s case, a single failure to make reasonable accommodation can have tragic consequences for an employee who is not accommodated.

When construing a statute, we seek to interpret it in a manner that promotes wise policy, not absurdity. ….

The judgment is affirmed.

Lessons To Be Learned

I don’t remember ever reading a case that turned on the question of whether a single incident of accommodation could support a disability claim and verdict –  so for that reason, the case is both interesting and important.

The case is also a sad and disturbing illustration of what can happen when managers at all levels are uninformed about the consequences of a failure to accommodate the disabled.

image: www.tempe.gov

www.carlsonzone.com

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome

Great Disability Rights Opinion From Seventh Circuit For Employees And Their Lawyers

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Employee With MS Wins Appeal In Seventh Circuit “Regarded As” Disability Decision

A case was decided by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last week that was an important victory for the employee as well as his lawyers.

In Brunker v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. the Court reversed judgment in favor of Schwan’s on Brunker’s disability claim. It also reversed the lower court’s testy imposition of sanctions against Brunker’s lawyers.

What Happened In The Case.

Frank Brunker worked as a delivery driver for Schwan’s delivering frozen food to its customers. In February of 2003, Brunker started experiencing shaking of his hands, slurred speech, dizziness, light headedness, and headaches.

The symptoms continued, Brunker went to the doctor, tests were taken, and Brunker was told that he might have multiple sclerosis.

Brunker went on disability leave for two months. Eventually, he went back to light duty work, and then back to work without any restrictions by his physician. He performed his job and was able to complete his route in the same manner as he had in the past.

Four months later, Brunker told his supervisor that he wanted to go to the Mayo Clinic for some tests. Around the same time, he stared to get written up for various performance issues.

When Brunker returned two weeks later, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his supervisor fired him citing “unsatisfactory performance” and “unable to perform essential job functions” on the termination form.

(Notably, Brunker’s supervisor backdated the termination form to September 9, the day Brunker left for the clinic and before his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.)

Brunker filed a claim in federal court for disability discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The lower court (N.D. Indiana) threw out the case and in an unusual move, sanctioned Brunker’s lawyers because of their discovery requests (attempts to get evidence to prove their case).

The Seventh Circuit Reverses

It would be tempting to go in to all of the reasons why the lower court’s opinion was just flat out wrong, but some of them don’t matter anymore since the Americans With Disabilities Act was amended to prevent precisely this result.

Multiple Sclerosis Is A Disability

The first part of the lower court’s ruling pronounced that Brunker had no claim because he was not disabled. In other words, the fact that he had multiple sclerosis didn’t matter, according to the court — even if that’s why he was fired — because MS was not a disability.

The court’s logic was based on case law developed under the ADA which left millions of people with disabilities unprotected from employment discrimination.

Fortunately,  the ADA was amended this past year. Under the new act, multiple sclerosis would be considered a disability (and should have been under the old act as well) so a judge theoretically should not be able to throw the case out on similar grounds. (the court did not address the amended ADA because the case was filed before it was passed)

(For information on new regulations proposed under the amended ADA see the article in the Connecticut Employment Law Blog)

Being Regarded As Disabled Is A Violation Of The ADA

Under the ADA (both the old act and the new one) a person has a claim for disability discrimination if he or she is subjected to an adverse employment decision because he or she is regarded as disabled.

To prove disability discrimination under a “regarded as” theory the employee can win by proving that:

  • The employer mistakenly believes that the employee has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or
  • The employer mistakenly believes that an existing impairment, which is not actually limiting, does substantially limit a major life activity (functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working)

In this case, the Court of Appeals decided that Brunker presented enough evidence that he was fired because Schwan’s regarded him as being disabled. In reversing the lower court, the Court of Appeals stated:

The record contains adequate evidence to support a theory that Schwan’s regarded Brunker as being disabled in the major life activities of walking, caring for himself, and speaking.

For example, the day before he left for the Mayo Clinic, Schwan”s issued Brunker multiple corrective action reports, including a dress code violation, suggesting that Schwan’s did not believe that Brunker was able to care for himself because of his apparent conditions.

Furthermore, Schwan’s disciplined him even though other employees were not cited for similar violations.

As to Schwan’s motive, the Court of Appeals had this to say:

Schwan’s fired Brunker immediately after he returned from treatment, but Schwan’s backdated the termination notice to before he left for the clinic, evidently hoping to avoid the impression that his apparent condition influenced Schwan’s decision to terminate him.

These facts are sufficient to create a triable question as to whether Schwan’s regarded Bunker as disabled when it fired him.

The Court Reverses Sanctions Against The Lawyers

It’s typical in these kinds of lawsuits for lawyers representing employees to request documents from the employer defendant to either prove their case  or disprove the defendant’s case. It not only typical; it is absolutely allowed the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

In what I can only say is a quirky, outlandish, and mean-spirited ruling, the trial court in this case imposed sanctions on Brunker’s lawyers because they pressed to get the information they believed necessary to properly represent their client.

For example, the lawyers asked for records on whether Schawn disciplined other employees who failed to follow its dress code or to keep accurate route books (some of the reasons give for the discharge).

A request to see co-employees personnel files in order to prove unequal  treatment or whether what the company is stating is true (pretext) is quite standard, but in this case the lawyers were sanctioned for making it.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the information was relevant to Brunker’s disparate treatment claim since it related to the even handedness of the company’s expectations.

The Court also criticized the company’s lawyers for refusing to produce the requested documents and then using them to support their defense.

The Court said:

Indeed Schwan’s went further than merely raising an issue it had previously argued was irrelevant.

It faulted Brunker for failing to identify any route manager who had “similar performance issues” and was treated more favorably.

And Schwan’s also discussed the route manager who was terminated for failing to service customers, despite Schwan’s successful opposition to Brunker’s request for his personnel file.

Similarly,  Schwan denied the relevance of the personnel file of another former employee, Mike Devereaux, but then used parts of that file in the summary judgment reply.

Through its actions, Schwan’s concedes that the bulk Brunker’s requests were substantially justified. We therefore vacate the award of sanctions.

Conclusion

This case is a great win for both Mr. Brunker and his lawyers. He obviously had grounds to bring a case claiming that he was terminated because of his disability – and every right to have that case heard by a jury.

As far as the lawyers go, it’s always very difficult to get companies to produce the documents we need to prove our cases. Companies control the records in these cases and they do not give them up easily even when they are plainly relevant.

At the same time there is no doubt that lawyers representing employees have to get those documents both to support our clients claims and test the employers’ defenses. It’s simply a battle that must be fought.

The fact that these lawyers were punished for doing what they needed to do for proper representation of their client is plainly wrong. Fortunately, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

images: www.pocketyourdollars.com bowtielaw.files.wordpress.com

This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on November 1, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome

Some New Year's Resolutions -- for Maria

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

Because it’s the time of year when we all make New Year’s resolutions (at least those who have not already sworn never to do so), I had planned to write this blog entry about some resolutions that will help ensure that 2007 becomes known as the year of the American worker. But then I learned of the untimely death of one of our colleagues, Maria Leavey. She was going to help Workplace Fairness do the best that it could to keep these issues live and well before the American public. So I propose these resolutions in her memory, knowing that we will greatly miss the particular resolve she would have contributed, but also knowing that any success that we achieve is what she would have wanted.

I was originally inspired to do this resolution post by one that I had read from the Huffington Post. If you’re a regular reader, then you know that Arianna Huffington really has a knack for keeping progressives motivated — and intellectually honest. But before I could locate the post that originally inspired me when I read it on New Year’s Day, I saw this post from today: A Quiet American Hero. That’s how I learned Maria was gone, which is probably appropriate, considering how connected she was with the blogging community, and the work she did to bring progressive bloggers together even more closely.

If you don’t know her — and you probably don’t — Maria was the kind of person behind the scenes that makes Washington work (in the most positive way, that is). She knew everyone that had the right values, and could also tell you about those who talked the talk, but weren’t sincerely walking the walk. I met her when she applied to become the Executive Director of Workplace Fairness. She realized just a few minutes into the interview that her talents could best benefit WF in another capacity.

We then spent the rest of the interview talking about what kind of work she could do with us that would benefit our mission — a mission in which she passionately believed. That could have been awkward, but it absolutely wasn’t. The very next day, we engaged her as a consultant, but unlike some consultants that you encounter in the nonprofit world, she wasn’t out to promote herself or make a buck — she simply wanted to help and believed she had some skills and some contacts that would benefit us.

So as I erase the appointment with her for next week from my calendar, and mentally uncheck the several tasks that I knew were going to get done with her capable assistance, I started to think about how she would have wanted us to carry on. I don’t presume to have known her well, but she was one of those people that you could understand and relate to immediately — no artifice, no false modesty, although the modesty she exemplified was misplaced. As my colleagues and I discussed, if we were talking about anyone else, we would think they were a real namedropper. With Maria, however, she really did know and have substantive relationships with powerful people — because she earned their respect through her hard work.

And so I propose these resolutions, based upon the few conversations with her I was privileged to have, and just wish that she were here to help us achieve them, as we had hoped and planned.

1. Adequate healthcare coverage for everyone that doesn’t have it. This was one of the issues about which Maria cared passionately, as it affected her personally. As we attempt to learn the cause of her death, we may never know just how much being one of the millions of Americans without health insurance affected her. But I do know that if we can finally make some real progress this year — and it seems like we might — then maybe we can worry less about all the people we know who don’t get the healthcare they need, and whether the consequences will one day be unthinkable.

2. Improving conditions for disabled workers by strengthening the ADA. Again, from personal experience (a disabled family member), Maria believed passionately in empowering people with disabilities, and we spoke often of how the ADA does not do enough to ensure that disabled workers can work instead of being consigned to the fringes of society. There’s a proposal kicking around called the “ADA Restoration Act,” that would repair many of the weaknesses of the current Americans with Disabilities Act, and I’d like to think that if something like this bill is passed in 2007, Maria would consider it significant progress.

3. Sharing information with immigrant and low-income workers. Maria had planned to help us with our efforts to translate the Workplace Fairness website into Spanish and other languages, and believed strongly in ensuring that all workers have the ability to learn about their rights and protect themselves. Workplace Fairness intends to make that project reality in 2007, and her spirit will live on through that project as well.

If I had not heard about Maria’s death today, this list would probably have contained some more resolutions. Not only was I reeling from learning about her being gone, but it’s going to be harder for us to make as much significant progress without her work. But I know that our success, on these and other issues, is what she would have wanted. And as I celebrate the inauguration of the 110th Congress tonight here in Washington, I know she’s celebrating too — not because some of the political campaigns on which she recently worked were successful, but because we now have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of real people. Like Maria did during her all-too-short lifetime.

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