Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Employee Rights Post’

ADA Changes Better Late Than Never

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

New ADA Regulations Will Bring Necessary Change

I received a call from a reporter from MSNBC a few days ago. She indicated that she wanted to ask me some questions about the new Americans with Disabilities Act regulations recently put out by the EEOC.

The interview caused me to reflect on just how important the amendments to the ADA are –along with the new regulations — and the struggle we have gone through to get here.

When the ADA was written, I remember being at a meeting in Cleveland with a group of employment lawyers which was sponsored by a committee of the American Bar Association. The guest speaker was a lawyer from D.C. and he was there to talk to us about the new legislation and give us a preview.

I remember listening to and reading all of these complex, confusing terms and thinking “this is going to result in tons of litigation and be a big nightmare.” I walked out of the meeting and talked about my deep concern with some friends and colleagues from both sides of the bar.

We all seemed to reach the same conclusion – that this was going to be an ugly litigation mess — and though we saw the handwriting on the wall, there was nothing we could do about it. The ADA was written and this is what it was going to say.

And indeed what our group of experienced employment lawyers predicted that day in 1990 turned out to be true. While the intent of the ADA was certainly noble, the way in which it was written has caused nothing but problems.

What’s more important is that the problems with the ADA have had a terrible negative effect on those individuals who were supposed to be protected by the legislation.

The ADA was intended to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. Because of the way in which the Act was written, combined with the way in which it has been interpreted by an exceedingly conservative federal judiciary, most cases got thrown out on summary judgment because the courts determined that the individual plaintiff employee was not disabled.

If he/she was not disabled, then he/she was not protected by the ADA from disability discrimination, and so they lost. Here’s an example of what I mean.

A secretary gets fired for going to chemotherapy. We file a case of disability discrimination. The employer argues that cancer is not a disability as defined by the Act. The judge buys the argument and the case gets thrown out. (based on a true story)

That scenario occurred thousands and thousands of times. Employees with disabilities were getting fired, or not hired in the first place, or passed over for promotions – and the cases were thrown out of court because the employers argued that the person was not disabled so the ADA did not apply.

Those rejected included people with AIDS, people with cancer, people with MS, people with epilepsy, diabetes, with prosthetic devices and the list goes on and on.

As a consequence,  those of us who tried to represent these folks never even got to the stage of the case in which we had a chance to prove discrimination.

As I explained to the MSNBC reporter, in other discrimination lawsuits such as age, race, or gender discrimination cases, we don’t have a fight about whether the client is a woman, or over 40, or black.

We glide past step one, and move on to proof of the next step, that is:

  • Was he or she was discriminated against because of age, race or gender?
  • Was that person’s age, race, or gender a motivating reason for the discharge, failure to hire, lack of promotion, or any other adverse employment decision?

In disability cases, it was almost impossible to get to step two. Practically no one seemed to meet the criteria for coverage under the ADA. To be covered, the individual must:

  • have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • and be able  to perform the essential functions of the job.

The courts decided – at the employers’ urging — that the employee was either not substantially impaired, or that the impairment did not involve a “major life activity.”

Even if the plaintiff got over that hurdle – in other words was disabled enough to meet the criteria, it’s most likely that he or she was booted anyway.

That’s because the employer would then take the position that the individual was so restricted that he or she was not able to meet the essential functions of their job – and most courts went along with the companies’ argument.

In a nutshell, a person either wasn’t disabled enough to meet the definitional terms of the statute– – or was too disabled to perform the “essential functions of the job” even if accommodated. (reasonable accommodation for the disabled is required under the ADA)

The long and short of it is that millions of people with disabilities had no protection from discrimination as a result of this legal mess.

The amendments to the ADA passed last year (Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008) fixed this problem and the regulations issued at the end of September provided most of the necessary clarifications to put real teeth into the fix.

For the first time, the EEOC regulations lists examples of impairments that will consistently meet the definition of a disability. Such impairments include (but are not limited to):

  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Partially or completely missing limbs
  • Mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair
  • Autism
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Major depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia

There are new definitions for substantial impairment, major life activity, regarded as disabled, and more  — all of which are intended to overrule the previous restrictive federal court interpretations of the legislation(including the US Supreme Court).

The new ADA amendments along with the regulations plainly state that the ADA is intended to offer broad protection to people with disabilities as well as people who are regarded to be disabled by their employers and who are discriminated because of it.

Instead of litigating the issue of whether someone is disabled,  the central issue of these cases will now be what they should have been all along – whether the employee was discriminated against because of a disability.  That’s what was intended when the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed.

Too bad it took us nineteen years to get here – but as the old adage goes, better late than never.

www.michaellouisyoung.com

www.broward.org

This article originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on November 9, 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

Employee Retaliated Against for Blogging: Bloggers Beware

Monday, July 13th, 2009

We have all heard about employees getting into hot water because of their blogs and online activities:

  • the Delta flight attendant fired because she posted a provocative photograph of herself in uniform without a visible name or logo
  • the Google employee who speculated online about his employer’s finances  
  • the Burger King executive who used his middle school-aged daughter’s online identity to attack a farmworkers’ advocacy group that was trying to increase pay and improve conditions for tomato pickers
  • the computer worker fired because he posted a photograph of his company’s loading dock receiving a rival’s shipment of computers

There’s even a term for it: DOOCED  — which means getting fired because of something that you wrote in your weblog.

(“Blogger Heather B. Armstrong coined the phrase in 2002, after she was fired from her Web design job for writing about work and colleagues on her blog, Dooce.com)

Now we have a new case on the subject from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In Richerson v. Beckon, the Court ruled against a schoolteacher who claimed constitutional protection for personal speech on her blog.

Here’s what happened in the case.

Tara Richerson worked as a curriculum specialist and institutional coach for the Central Kitsap School District in Silverdale, Washington.

The job required her to engage in “trusting mentor relationships” with less experienced teachers in order to give them “honest, critical and private feedback.”

Richerson wrote a blog which, according to the opinion, contained highly personal and vituperative comments about her employers, union representatives, and fellow teachers.

Although Richerson did not refer to these individuals by name, many were easily identifiable because of the description of the positions or their personal attributes. Here’s one of Richerson’s blog posts about her replacement:

Save us White Boy!

I met with the new me today: the person who will take my summer work and make it a full-time year-round position. I was on the interview committee for this job and this guy was my third choice … and a reluctant one at that. I truly hope that I have to eat my words about this guy…. But after spending time with this guy today, I think Boss Lady 2.0 made the wrong call in hiring him … He comes across as a smug know-it-all creep. And that’s probably the nicest way I can describe him…. He has a reputation of crapping on secretaries and not being able to finish tasks on his own…. And he’s white. And male. I know he can’t help that, but I think the District would have done well to recruit someone who has other connections to the community…. Mighty White Boy looks like he’s going to crash and burn

You don’t have to be a lawyer to sense that this blog was going to getting her into trouble. Sure enough, when the blog came to light, Jeanne Beckon, the Director of Human Resources received complaints and several individuals refused to work with Richerson. 

As a result, Beckon transferred Richerson out of her coaching position and into a classroom teaching position, claiming that Richerson’s blog fatally undermined her ability to enter into trusting relationships as an instructional coach. Richerson sued.

Richerson lost her case in the federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court held that the “legitimate administrative interests” of the school district overweighed Richerson’s right of free speech under the First Amendment. According to the opinion:

It is abundantly clear from undisputed evidence in the record that Richerson’s speech had a significantly deleterious effect [on the performance of her duties]. [Her supervisor] provided testimony, not controverted by Richerson, indicating that several individuals refused to work with Richerson in the future.

Common sense indicates that few teachers would expect that they could enter into a confidential and trusting relationship with Richerson after reading her blog. [Her supervisor] need only make a ‘reasonable prediction’ that such disruption would occur; she need not demonstrate that it has occurred or will occur to a certainty… .

Accordingly, the district court did not err in concluding that the legitimate interests of the School District outweighed Richerson’s First Amendment interests in not being transferred because of her speech.

The decision is correct with respect to the current state of public employee speech law, according to Paul Secunda, one of the law professors who writes on this topic but the legal test should be changed. As Professor Secunda wrote:

I want to suggest that the Ninth Circuit is right on the current state of public employee speech law, but also want to point out that the most disruptive public employee speech gets the least amount of protection under the Pickering framework. It is almost like we have constitutionalized the heckler’s veto in this area of the law and that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

So what would I do instead, you ask? I would prefer a test which places a heavier thumb on the balance on the side of the employee, as long as the employee is talking upon a matter of public concern, which involves the heart of the First Amendment’s protection in the first place. Under this balance, I would let Richerson yap away and let other employees drown her out with their own more sensible counter-arguments.

For those who may be interested, Professor Secunda wrote an excellent law review article: Blogging While(Publicly)Employed: Some First Amendment Implications which can be found at his post on Workplace Prof Blog.

Of course only government employees have limited First Amendment protections for blogging about work. It may come as a great surprise to many that private employees have no Constitutional free speech protection at work.

But, according to Professor Secunda,  private employees may be protected under Section 7of the National Labor Relations Act. (NLRA).  Under the NLRA  employees are free to engage in concerted activities in the workplace for their “mutual aid and protection.” Therefore, according to the argument, when employees are blogging about common workplace issues, they are engaged in protected, concerted activity under the Act. It sounds like a very good argument to me.

In addition some states have off-duty conduct statutes which generally prohibit employers from terminating employees for engaging in lawful conduct outside of the workplace. Some argue that these statutes may protect bloggers(depending in part on what they are blogging about).

Other employee bloggers have argued for protection under common law tort theories such as invasion of privacy. Many employers, however, have issued policies making sure that there is no expectation of privacy on the part of the employee with respect to blogging at work.

In sum, blogging at work, and blogging about work, are really two different topics. Employee rights may differ depending on where employees are doing the blogging — on company time, or on private time — and what they are blogging about.

In both of these circumstances, employers clearly have legitimate concerns about the content of employee blogs when employee bloggers:

  • reveal confidential/propriety information
  • improperly utilize a company logo or trademark
  • harass, intimidate, and discriminate against co-employees

These concerns can and should be addressed by appropriate corporate policies which protect legitimate interests without demoralizing employees or creating a repressive workplace environment.

In the meantime, since the law is quite undeveloped and the waters uncharted in this area, both employers and employees need to use common sense and tread carefully.

Ellen Simon: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She has been listed in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. 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. Ellen has been listed as one of The Best Lawyers in America for her landmark work representing individuals in precedent-setting cases. She also received regional and national attention for winning a record $30.7 million verdict in an age-discrimination case; the largest of its kind in U.S. history. Ellen has served as an adjunct professor of employment law and is an experienced and popular orator. Ellen is Past-Chair of the Employment Rights Section of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and is honored to be a fellow of the International Society of Barristers and American Board of Trial Advocates. In additional to work as a legal analyst, she currently acts as co-counsel on individual employment cases, is available as an expert witness on employment matters and offers consulting services on sound employment practices, discrimination awareness and prevention, complaint investigation and resolution, and litigation management. Ms. Simon is the owner of the Simon Law Firm, L.P.A., and Of Counsel to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, a Cleveland, Ohio based law firm. She is also the author of the legal blog, the Employee Rights Post, and her website is www.ellensimon.net. Ellen has two children and lives with her husband in Sedona, Arizona.

This article was originally posted on Ellen Simon’s Employee Rights Post on July 6th. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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