ADA in the News January 4, 2021

EEOC Sues McLane Northeast for Disability Discrimination

McLane Northeast, a distribution company with a facility outside Baldwinsville, N.Y., violated federal law by refusing to interview a qualified applicant because she was deaf, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit filed 12/31/20.  

According to the EEOC’s complaint, a deaf individual applied for two positions in McLane’s warehouse located in Lysander, N.Y., for which she was fully qualified. McLane contacted her the same day and left a message.  She then returned McLane’s call using a Telecommunications Relay Service, which uses an operator to facilitate calls for people with hearing and speech disabilities.  After being contacted via the Relay Service, McLane did not return her call and rejected her application the next day.  McLane filled the positions with individuals who are not hearing impaired.     

Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified applicants based on their disability.  The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York (EEOC v. McLane/Eastern, Inc. d/b/a McLane Northeast, Civil Action No. 5:20-cv-01628-BKS-ML) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.  The EEOC seeks back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages for the applicant, as well as injunctive relief designed to remedy and prevent future disability discrimination in the hiring process.  The case will be litigated by EEOC Trial Attorney Caitlin Brown and EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney Kimberly Cruz.

“The law requires that applicants with disabilities receive the same opportunities as any other applicant to compete for a position,” said Jeffrey Burstein, regional attorney for the EEOC’s New York District Office. “An employer can’t disqualify disabled employees without even considering their qualifications for a job.”

Judy Keenan, director of the New York District Office, said, “This is the mission of the agency—equal employment opportunity.  Everyone should have the opportunity to compete for employment on an equal playing field.  That is what the law requires, and we will enforce it aggressively.”

Pharmaceutical scientist fired in a RIF year after 'mental episode' can't revive ADA claims
Affirming summary judgment against the ADA and state-law disability discrimination claims of a pharmaceutical scientist, who alleged Biogen subjected him to a hostile work environment and fired him based on his disability—an acute mental episode—the First Circuit found that "after whittling the timeline of alleged actionable conduct to events that occurred within the limitations period," there was no evidence of employment discrimination. Because the employee failed to show his termination stemmed from any disability-related discriminatory animus, it could not serve as the anchoring act for his hostile work environment claim. (Brader v Biogen Inc, 1stCir, December 18, 2020, Thompson, O.)

Jury could find trucking company employee's medical notes contained accommodation request
Although the Eleventh Circuit has not ruled on whether a doctor's note may suffice as a request for a reasonable accommodation, a federal district court in Alabama, citing two other district courts in the circuit, found a reasonable juror could conclude that a trucking company employee's medical notes—one recommending limited work hours for several weeks and the other advising she have three days off—contained a reasonable accommodation request. While the court allowed her ADA failure-to-accommodate and disability discrimination claims to go to a jury—she had been fired after a third request for additional leave following brain surgery and an accident—her race discrimination claims failed on summary judgment. (Menefee v Action Resources, LLC, NDAla, December 14, 2020, Maze, C.)

7th Circuit: Injured worker not qualified individual under ADA

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a ruling that a woman fired from her job after a spinal injury was not a qualified individual under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In June 2016, Paula McAllister underwent spinal surgery following a car accident that left her with serious head and back injuries. Shortly after her injury, McAllister sought short-term disability benefits and medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

In the months following her surgery, McAllister’s treating physicians repeatedly concluded she could not yet return to work as a machine operator at Innovation Ventures LLC. Innovation provided her with medical leave and short-term disability benefits while she sought treatment, but once it became clear that McAllister likely could not return to work until at least February 2017, Innovation fired McAllister in December 2016.

McAllister then applied for long-term disability benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, and the Social Security Administration granted her SSDI benefits in February 2018 to apply retroactively to the date of her accident.

McAllister ultimately sued Innovation, alleging the company failed to accommodate her under the ADA and bringing several causes of action for discrimination. However, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana granted Innovation’s motion for summary judgment, finding McAllister was not qualified under the ADA on her failure-to-accommodate claim.

The 7th Circuit Court affirmed Thursday in Paula McAllister v. Innovation Ventures, LLC, 20-1779, finding McAllister had failed to create a genuine issue of material fact to survive summary judgment that she could “perform the essential functions” of her machine operator job during August and September 2016, even with accommodations.

“Given this failure to demonstrate a capability to perform the essential functions asked of a machine operator, McAllister is not a qualified individual under the ADA,” Senior Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the 7th Circuit panel.

The panel likewise found that McAllister’s post hoc assertions that she could have performed lighter work or a desk job during that time “ring hollow,” concluding that she failed to create a genuine dispute of material fact that she could perform another job with or without accommodations. Finding the record established the opposite as true, it determined she could not work in any role at Innovation.

As such, the panel concluded the district court did not err in granting summary judgment.

“Accordingly, the district court correctly found that any request for additional leave was not ‘reasonable,’ and therefore, McAllister did not establish a genuine issue that she was a qualified individual under the ADA. Having decided McAllister does not qualify as a disabled individual under the ADA, we decline to reach the district court­s conclusions about equitable estoppel,” Flaum concluded.

Confronting The Stigma Against Persons With Disabilities In College

College campuses are just one among many places where people with disabilities face systematic discrimination and exclusion

Justice Department Settles with Indiana School District to Resolve Disability Discrimination Investigation into School Seclusion and Restraint Practices

The Justice Department announced a settlement agreement with the North Gibson School Corporation in Princeton, Indiana to address and prevent the discriminatory secluding and restraining of students with disabilities.

The agreement follows an investigation conducted under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into a complaint that the school district inappropriately secluded and restrained students with emotional and behavioral disabilities in the district’s self-contained classrooms.  The department’s investigation confirmed that students as young as five years old were secluded and restrained improperly and repeatedly, resulting in days, and sometimes weeks, of lost instructional time.  The department also investigated allegations that the school district regularly and inappropriately sent these students home early from school, placed them on abbreviated school days, and assigned them to homebound instruction.

“Students with disabilities, like all students, belong in classrooms where they can learn – not locked away or otherwise segregated from their peers.  When school districts improperly seclude or restrain students with disabilities, they inflict grievous harm on some of America’s most vulnerable children,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division.  “Students with emotional and behavioral disabilities need additional supports in the classroom, not practices that keep them out or subject them to isolation and trauma.  We look forward to working with the North Gibson School Corporation as it implements this settlement agreement to provide students with disabilities equal access to education — a right guaranteed them by the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

“We are better as a community when our schools serve all of our students” said Acting U.S. Attorney John Childress for the Southern District of Indiana.  “Our schools should be places where all children have the best chance to learn and grow and this agreement is a significant step toward achieving that goal.”

The school district cooperated fully throughout the investigation, voluntarily suspended its use of seclusion rooms before the investigation was completed and agreed to take the steps outlined in today’s settlement agreement.

Under the settlement agreement, the school district will take proactive steps to ensure that its practices do not discriminate against students with disabilities.  The district will, among other things: change its policies to prohibit use of seclusion rooms; report all instances of restraint and review whether they were justified; take steps to avoid placing students with emotional and behavioral disabilities on an abbreviated school day or homebound instruction and document those steps; create and implement a procedure for handling complaints of disability discrimination; provide appropriate training and resources to help schools implement the agreement; and appoint an Intervention Coordinator to ensure the district’s compliance with the agreement and Title II of the ADA.

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