A northern Indiana fast food restaurant violated federal law by rescinding its job offer and failing to accommodate an applicant with a disability it initially hired, according to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency announced today.
According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, HZ Ops Holdings, Inc., which owns and operates Popeye’s in Griffith, Ind., refused to complete onboarding of an employee it initially hired. The restaurant was told in the interview that the applicant would need a job coach present during training. It then hired the applicant and gave her paperwork and the employee handbook. Afterwards, however, the restaurant told the applicant’s job coach it could not hire the applicant because it was concerned she would hurt herself due to her cognitive disability.
Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on disability. The EEOC asserts that the company’s actions were intentional and demonstrated a reckless indifference to the applicant’s federally protected rights.
The EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. HZ Ops Holdings, Inc., d/b/a Popeye’s, Case No. 2:20-cv-00486-JTM-APR) in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through the agency’s conciliation process. The agency is seeking back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, and other relief from HZ OPS Holdings, Inc., including a permanent injunction to prevent the company from engaging in future disability discrimination in hiring.
“The ADA shields an applicant from disability-based assumptions about job ability ,” said Kenneth L. Bird, Indianapolis District Office Regional Attorney. “An employer cannot reflexively consider an individual’s disability to bar or deny reasonable accommodation to a qualified applicant, ” explained Bird.
Fourth Circuit Speaks: To Be “Qualified” Under the ADA, Disabled Employee Must Comply with Valid Safety Requirements
Seyfarth Synopsis: Often an employer’s valid safety requirements for a position can be at odds with a disabled employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation. A recent decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirms employers’ right to require compliance with valid safety requirements. And it serves as a helpful reminder that employers should ensure that job descriptions and safety requirements are routinely audited, to ensure they are up-to-date, accurate, and enforceable.
When an employee has a disability that preludes her from performing a portion of her job duties, employers have an obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to engage with the employee and find a reasonable accommodation. But sometimes the employee’s disability prevents the employee from performing her job duties in a safe manner and in accordance with the company’s safety policies. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently analyzed this fact pattern, and it held that because the employee was unable to comply with the valid safety requirements of her position, she was not protected by the requirements of the ADA.
This decision is a welcome ruling for employers, and it also serves as a helpful reminder for employers to ensure that their safety requirements and essential job functions are up-to-date, accurate, and defensible.
In Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems, Inc., the plaintiff brought an ADA action against her former employer. The plaintiff worked as a shelter fabricator for a number of years. Throughout the entirety of her employment, the job required the use of heavy equipment and machinery. In 2003, General Dynamics began requiring shelter fabricators to wear steel-toed shoes to protect against accidents. However, the plaintiff suffered from a disability that prevented her from wearing steel-toed shoes. Accordingly, she presented a doctor’s note explaining her condition, and for a number of years General Dynamics allowed her to wear tennis shoes instead.
This changed in July 2013 when General Dynamics received a negative audit finding after an inspector observed a different employee in the production area without steel-toed shoes. In addition, another employee had been injured a few years earlier while not wearing steel-toed shoes. Accordingly, the company decided that it needed to enforce the steel-toed shoe policy, and it instructed all supervisors to do so.
This decision presented a problem for the plaintiff. She provided a doctor’s note stating that her disability prevented her from safely wearing steel-toes shoes. The company placed her a on a leave of absence while it worked to find a reasonable accommodation. General Dynamics explored different shoe options for the plaintiff (which she and her doctors rejected), re-reviewed the steel-toed shoe requirement, and looked for suitable alternative positions. When no accommodation was possible, the company terminated the plaintiff’s employment.
The plaintiff subsequently filed an ADA claim against General Dynamics. Following discovery, the district court granted summary judgment for General Dynamics and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims. The district court found that the plaintiff was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because she could not comply with the company’s valid safety requirements.
Fourth Circuit’s Decision
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order. The Fourth Circuit explained that the ADA protects “qualified individuals” from discrimination on the basis of disability. Under the ADA, a qualified individual is one “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds.” And the Court held that the plaintiff was not a qualified individual because she was unable to comply with a valid safety requirement.
In doing so, the Fourth Circuit drew a distinction between whether the plaintiff could perform her essential job functions and whether the plaintiff could comply with a valid safety requirement. The Court recognized that in addition to essential job functions, it must also consider General Dynamic’s valid safety requirement when analyzing the plaintiff’s claims. The Court explained:
[T]he ADA simply does not mandate that a safety requirement be a part of the essential functions of a position for an employer to enforce it. Rather, as long as the requirement is valid, any employee who is categorically unable to comply—as [plaintiff] and her doctors have consistently maintained that she is—will “not be considered [a] ‘qualified’” individual for ADA purposes.
The Fourth Circuit found that there was no dispute as to the validity of the safety requirement that safety-sensitive positions wear steel-toed shoes and there was no dispute that the plaintiff could not comply with the safety requirement. Accordingly, the plaintiff was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA and was not entitled to any relief.
The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that because she had performed the job for more than 10 years without wearing steel-toed shoes, she was a qualified individual under the ADA. The Court explained that just because she had performed the job without injury while not wearing steel-toed shoes did not mean that she had performed the job safely. And the Fourth Circuit rejected the argument that the plaintiff’s prior work established that an exemption from the steel-toed shoe requirement was a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The Court explained:
Holding an exemption from an admittedly valid safety requirement represents a reasonable accommodation simply cannot be squared with an employer’s right to “require compliance” with such a requirement even when an employee cannot meet the requirement because of a disability. See EEOC Guidance at F., Example 45. If exemptions from valid safety policies were required as ADA accommodations, it is unclear under what circumstances an employer could ever enforce a valid safety policy.
Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in General Dynamic’s favor.
The Fourth Circuit’s decision is welcome news for employers, but it also illustrates the importance of ensuring that all safety policies and requirements are job-related, consistent with business necessity, and, above all, defensible. Although the validity of the steel-toed shoe requirement was not before the Fourth Circuit, in many cases the validity of a particular safety requirement will be at issue. Accordingly, it is important for employers to conduct period audits of the essential functions and safety requirements of positions, to ensure those requirements are accurate, up-to-date, and enforceable.
Does it ever make sense to let an employer know that you suffer from depression? I take an antidepressant daily. I’m not seeing a therapist. I would call it more of a functional depression, where I can live with it, but at times it can feel worse and I have to force myself to work. Does that make my depression something I should want to disclose to an employer? Would an employer think less of you, or perhaps not hire you at all, because you suffer from depression, even if it is protected by the law? When you’re currently employed, does it make sense to disclose after the fact? Would informing an employer that you have depression prevent them from firing you if you were finding it difficult to focus or concentrate? I have not disclosed this to my employer and do not include that information when I apply for new jobs. I don’t want the stigma of a disease that no one can see attached to me. If I did disclose after being hired, how would I go about doing that?
As a general rule, I’d only disclose a mental-health condition (or any health condition, for that matter) at work when you need to ask for a specific accommodation connected with it.
One day I hope we live in a world where you can disclose a mental-health struggle without stigma. Right now, though, it’s safer to proceed with caution, at least until you’re certain of how your manager will respond. There’s still too much risk of your employer discriminating against you in some way. My in-box is full of letters from people who disclosed a mental-health condition at work and afterward were treated differently in ways they didn’t want, like being treated as too delicate for certain projects or denied advancement opportunities that they were perfectly capable of.
To be fair, I also hear from people who disclose a mental-health struggle and it goes fine! They have a manager who gets it, the disclosure helps them obtain the accommodations they want (whether it’s time off for therapy appointments, more flexible hours when they’re fighting depression, and so forth), and it doesn’t have negative repercussions for them. So disclosing isn’t automatically or always a bad thing. But I still wouldn’t recommend disclosing just for the sake of it — save it for when there’s something specific you want to ask for.
And I want to be clear: That’s frustrating advice to give. Having open conversations about mental health is a good thing, and we need more of them. There’s nothing shameful about depression or other mental-health issues, and stigmatizing them does real damage. But we’re talking here about the professional world as it actually is, not the one I wish we lived in, and the reality we have to deal with is that people are often still weird about mental health in a way they’re not about physical health.
Moreover, waiting to disclose until there’s something specific you want to ask for isn’t just about avoiding potential backlash. It’s also because there’s not really anything your manager can do with the info unless you’re requesting a specific accommodation. And if you share your mental-health struggles without asking for something concrete, your manager may assume you want her to take some sort of action — and may go looking for ways to help that don’t line up with anything you’d actually want (like taking you off a project she assumes will be too stressful).
Now let’s talk about the law. In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against you — including not hiring you, firing you, or not giving you the same professional opportunities they give others — simply because you have a mental-health condition. If your condition is protected by the ADA, the law requires your employer to work with you to find reasonable accommodations to help you do your job, such as changing your work schedule, providing extra time on assignments, or whatever might help you perform your job, as long as it doesn’t create “undue hardship” for your employer. (The law defines “undue hardship” pretty narrowly. It can’t just be your boss saying, “Eh, that sounds like a pain.”) To decide you were unfit for your job because of your mental health, your employer would need to have objective evidence that you were unable to perform the essential functions of your position, even with reasonable accommodations.
It’s important to know, though, that not everyone is covered by the ADA. The law only applies to employers with 15 or more employees, and your condition needs to “substantially limit one or more major life activities,” which include interacting with others, communicating, eating, sleeping, caring for yourself, and regulating your thoughts. (The ADA doesn’t list specific conditions it covers — instead focusing on how severe the effects of those conditions are — but depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other common mental-health disorders often do fall under its protection.) The ADA also protects you if you are perceived as having such an impairment, whether or not you actually do. Some state laws provide additional protections as well.
If you do decide to ask for accommodations at some point, it usually makes sense to start with your HR department, rather than your direct manager (especially if you expect your manager to be resistant), because HR staff are generally trained in disability law, while individual managers often aren’t. Send an email with the subject line “Request for Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act” so that it’s clear what you’re asking for. Your company might ask you to submit a letter from your doctor to document that you have a health condition that requires an accommodation, but you and your doctor shouldn’t need to disclose your specific diagnosis when doing that.
>From there, the law requires your employer to enter into an interactive process with you to determine what accommodations would work. They’re allowed to propose a different solution than the one you suggested, but if their proposal won’t work, you’re allowed to explain why and ask for something else. The process sometimes includes a few rounds of “We can’t do X because of Y, but how about Z?” They’re also allowed to choose a solution that’s easier or less expensive for them to provide if it will still meet your needs. If you’re not sure what specific accommodations to ask for, the Job Accommodation Network has an enormous list of potential accommodations for various disabilities and is worth checking out.
But know that you never need to disclose a health condition if you don’t want to. And if there’s nothing specific you want to ask for, in most cases the safer option is hold off until/unless that changes. I’m sorry that’s the case, and I hope one day it won’t be something people need to worry about.