Be Prepared…Litigation is Often the Ultimate Reality; First Disability Accommodation Lawsuit; Understanding The Gender Dysphoria Legal Background; Award for Nina Ginsberg
By: Anne Cullen
Law360 (September 9, 2021, 6:36 PM EDT) — The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s first disability accommodation lawsuit tied to the pandemic sheds light on how businesses can handle the ongoing surge in telework requests without violating anti-discrimination law, experts say.
In the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday, the workplace bias watchdog said a Denmark-based facilities company illegally rejected a telework request from an employee whose lung disease put her at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19.
The agency accused ISS Facility Services of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when it refused to let former company health and safety manager Ronisha Moncrief work from home two days a week in mid-2020. Moncrief has obstructive lung disease, which places her at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, according to the agency’s complaint.
The case marks the first time the agency has taken a company to court over a pandemic-related request for an accommodation under the ADA, and experts say company leaders and their legal counsel should be following the proceedings closely.
“I think this is one that all employment lawyers should be watching to see how this all plays out,” said disability law expert Jonathan Mook of DiMuroGinsberg PC. “It may well end up as a template for litigating these kinds of cases.”
The lawsuit offers employers a blueprint for steering clear of disability discrimination as they continue to handle employees’ telework requests, experts said.
“This is one to watch because it will very likely — if it ends up making law, as opposed to being resolved early — set the stage for how far an employer may need to flex when it comes to work from home,” said Littler Mendelson PC shareholder Michelle Barrett Falconer, who co-chairs the firm’s leaves of absence and disability accommodation practice group. While the case is just getting started, here are four things employers can learn from the legal
Claims Over Denied Telework Abound
The allegations in the EEOC’s new lawsuit are not uncommon, and experts said the agency’s intervention in this space indicates that more suits with these types of claims will surface, both from the agency and private litigants.
“There’s going to be an avalanche of these types of cases as employers start bringing employees back to work physically at the worksite,” Mook said. Plus, he added, more claims will land in federal courts as they percolate through the EEOC’s administrative process from recall efforts that started last year.
His prediction is backed up by a recent survey from management-side firm Fisher Phillips, which found there’s been a general trend of increased litigation around the pandemic during the summer, with claims surrounding remote work and leave making up about a third of the total.
The firm also forecasted a steady increase in COVID-19 lawsuits filed by employees across the country. Mook said the litigation also makes clear that this is a space the agency is eyeing closely and
could crack down on.
“The EEOC is sending a signal that they’re serious about these cases, and they’re going to start taking a hard look at employers taking the position that employees who have disabling conditions no longer can continue working at home,” he said.
An EEOC spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit or whether more similar suits were in the pike, but told Law360 on Thursday that “the COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis with immense civil rights implications.”
“The economic fallout is disproportionately affecting vulnerable workers, including those with disabilities, and has serious workplace implications,” said agency spokesperson Christine Saah Nazer. “Employers must remain vigilant in ensuring that they maintain a discrimination-free workplace.”
If Recalling Workers, Have a Good Reason Employment lawyers said the lawsuit reminds businesses that they need to have a solid rationale for recalling their workers from a remote arrangement if their job doesn’t require them to be
“It’s a good warning to employers to be careful about flat rules about requiring people to come back to the office,” said Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophete LLP partner Robin E. Shea. In the agency’s lawsuit, it argued that Moncrief had a legitimate basis to keep clocking in from home and had provided documents to ISS Facility Services supporting her reasoning.
She offered documentation to the company showing she needed the accommodation because her severe pulmonary disease placed her at a high-risk for contracting COVID-19, according to the lawsuit. When she was on-site, Moncrief often had close contact with colleagues, sometimes sharing a desk with co-workers, the agency said.
The agency also noted that working from home helped Moncrief manage her condition, but the company rejected her request to work from home two days a week. While ISS Facility Services has not yet responded to the lawsuit and did not respond to multiple requests for comment, experts said the case shows that it’s crucial company leaders have a solid defense for denying a disabled worker’s petition to telework.
“It does confirm what we’ve been saying all along, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for employers to justify no further telework,” said Littler’s Falconer. Calling workers back in because that’s how things used to be is not a good enough reason; company leaders should have a well-thought-out, documented rationale for why employees need
“They may have reasons,” Falconer said. “But the idea of, we just want everybody in the office, is not going to be an argument that will easily win the day.”
Consider Pandemic Experience in Analysis
The suit also serves as a reminder that company leaders who had everyone clock in from home at some point in the pandemic should take into consideration how their workers fared during this period when they evaluate requests to continue the arrangement, experts said.
The EEOC said in its lawsuit that Moncrief had worked from home four days per week after the U.S. first shut down due to COVID-19 in early 2020, but was later denied a similar, pared-down arrangement when the company sought to recall some of its workforce.
Two months after she asked to continue a partially remote arrangement, she was sacked for purported performance issues, according to the complaint, though the agency also noted that in the months leading up to her firing, Moncrief had performed well for the company, increasing employee training facilitywide.
The allegations may indicate that Moncrief had successfully completed her work during the initial telework period, something the agency has advised should be taken into consideration when evaluating continued remote work requests.
Guidance the EEOC put out a year ago said pandemic telework experiences can serve as a “trial period that showed whether or not this employee with a disability could satisfactorily perform all essential functions while working remotely,” and companies “should consider any new requests in light of this information.”
DiMuroGinsberg’s Mook said this week’s lawsuit indicates that the agency wants employers to heed this advice.
“The signal they’re sending is employers need to be careful,” he said. “It isn’t the old way of operating in terms of telework as a reasonable accommodation.”
Back to Basics
However, despite the use of potential new factors in the calculus, Jackson Lewis PC principal Jenifer Bologna said this case makes clear to her that company leaders need to ensure they’re handling reasonable accommodation requests following the traditional, fact-specific process.
“Employers should be evaluating claims the way they would any other request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, and I think that’s really the important takeaway,” said Bologna, who specializes in disability and leave management issues.
“When it comes to requests for accommodations, the standard rules apply,” she said. The agency’s longstanding guidance on evaluating an accommodation request starts with a discussion on the nature of a worker’s disability and how it limits their ability to do their job.
The EEOC’s running bulletin on best practices for companies balancing pandemic issues with the needs of disabled workers reiterates the standard rules. In it, the agency has laid out a list of discussion items that employers should run through with an employee when evaluating the viability of a remote work arrangement.
It’s important to understand how the worker’s disability limits their ability to come into the office, how telework could help the problem, whether another arrangement could be the solution and if the worker can get their fundamental job duties done while at home, according to the agency’s guidance.
Bologna said employers need to make sure their conversations follow this blueprint. “Each situation is different, but it’s truly back to basics,” she said. “There is so much new with COVID, so many new concepts, but this is a circle back to our traditional accommodation process.”
— Additional reporting by Amanda Ottaway. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.
By: Anne Cullen
Law360 (July 12, 2021, 6:49 PM EDT) — Despite some major carveouts in the Americans with Disabilities Act surrounding transgender individuals, federal district courts are increasingly endorsing the claim that gender dysphoria merits protections under the federal anti-discrimination law.
Medical research makes clear that the condition can be severely disabling, as the American Psychiatric Association defines gender dysphoria as clinically significant distress or impairment related to a strong desire to be of another gender, and says it can interfere with someone’s social life, their ability to do their job as well as other important daily functions.
However, part of the ADA that hasn’t been touched since it was written three decades ago makes clear that “transvestism,” “transsexualism,” and “gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments” do not qualify as disabilities.
These “conditions” are lumped among a crop of others that lawmakers said don’t make the cut, including pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, and pyromania.
While some attorneys say the outdated section of the law gives transgender individuals a steep hill to climb when they want to bring a gender dysphoria bias claim in court, many courts that have actually grappled with this question cleared these allegations to move ahead.
“There’s overwhelming support by courts for coverage of gender dysphoria under the ADA and the Rehab Act,” said Quinnipiac University associate dean and disability law professor Kevin M. Barry, who has penned academic papers and court filings on the issue.
Case law does appear to be trending in one direction, but this area of law is still unsettled; a Law360 analysis found that federal district courts have issued fewer than two dozen decisions on the issue — primarily in prisoners’ rights cases — and the question has not yet been tackled by an appeals court.
The issue will continue to crop up, experts predict, potentially forcing courts to solidify the legal landscape one way or the other.
“It’s certainly an emerging issue under the ADA that I think practitioners are going to be confronting in the future,” said disability law expert Jonathan Mook of DiMuroGinsberg PC. Here Law360 takes a look at where the law stands when it comes to the status of gender dysphoria under the ADA and its federal sector counterpart, the Rehabilitation Act.
Seminal Blatt Case Makes Waves
While the law specifically excludes certain “gender identity disorders,” a Pennsylvania federal judge created a stir in 2017 when he declared that gender dysphoria sits outside that category.
The decision, Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail Inc. , marked the first time a court said gender dysphoria could be a disability under the ADA. U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson Jr. said gender identity disorder narrowly refers to the condition of identifying with a different gender, not the disabling conditions, like gender dysphoria, that might come along with it.
Judge Leeson cleared employment discrimination allegations against sports retailer Cabela’s to move ahead in May 2017, and the case settled shortly after. Quinnipiac University’s Barry, who represented a handful of LGBTQ advocacy organizations that chimed into the case to argue gender dysphoria qualifies as a disability, told Law360 this was the right call.
“The Blatt court said that when the ADA excluded gender identity disorder, what Congress was really excluding was trans identity, and trans identity is not a disability,” he said. “That is true.”
However, other experts aren’t so sure.
Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophete LLP partner Robin E. Shea, who counsels employers, said there’s a strong argument that specific exclusions in the ADA encompass gender dysphoria.
Shea told Law360 that the Blatt case may have gotten it wrong when they decided otherwise. “I think they might have stretched [the ADA] with that decision,” Shea said.
Physical Impairment Theory Wins Court Favor
Though Judge Leeson’s take was the first on the issue, his theory isn’t the one that has taken center stage in the legal battles that have followed.
In the years since the Blatt decision, many of his peers on the federal bench who have concluded gender dysphoria might be a disability under the ADA made their finding based on the statute’s language surrounding “physical impairments.”
Because the law says “gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments” do not qualify, a handful of federal courts have found that when someone makes a claim that their gender dysphoria did stem from a physical cause, their condition may merit ADA protection.
Federal courts in Massachusetts, Idaho, Illinois, Florida, and Georgia have all cleared ADA claims relating to gender dysphoria to move ahead based on this theory.
“The piece that a lot of courts are struggling with is this carveout that the ADA contains for gender identity disorders,” said Eckert Seamans member Lindsey Conrad Kennedy, who advises employers. “As we’ve seen pretty recently, courts and plaintiffs are finding ways to get around this carveout.”
U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns in Massachusetts was one of the first to take this stance three years ago in a legal battle lodged by a transgender inmate who sued under the pseudonym Jane Doe.
Judge Stearns pointed out in his mid-2018 decision in Doe v. Massachusetts Department ofCorrection that a growing body of medical research shows that gender dysphoria may come from hormonal and genetic drivers.
He ruled that “the continuing re-evaluation of GD underway in the relevant sectors of the medical community is sufficient, for present purposes, to raise a dispute of fact as to whether Doe’s GD falls outside the ADA’s exclusion of gender identity-based disorders as they were understood by Congress 28 years ago.”
A handful of courts have made similar findings in the years following. In Georgia federal court late last year, a federal judge ruled in Lange v. Houston County , Georgia, that a deputy sheriff with gender dysphoria could move ahead with her claim against the county because she had clearly alleged that the condition stems from a physical impairment.
While the county insisted that the employee, Anna Lange, hadn’t shown her specific condition was rooted in any physical cause, U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell said she didn’t need to make this showing to defeat the county’s dismissal bid.
“As a matter of pleading, Lange clearly alleges that she has a condition that results from physical impairment,” Judge Treadwell said. “Because she has alleged that, the court cannot conclude as a matter of law that the statutory exclusion of ‘gender identity disorders’ applies.”
That case is now in the midst of discovery.
And just last month, in Pennsylvania federal court, U.S. District Judge Karen S. Marston cleared an ADA claim against the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania to move ahead on similar lines, citing the Lange decision.
Save for some cases in which a plaintiff — usually those lacking legal counsel — didn’t quite make the “physical impairment” argument clearly and strongly enough, Quinnipiac University’s Barry said courts have nearly universally shown they’re on board with this angle.
“Almost every court that has addressed that issue has accepted that theory of coverage,” Quinnipiac University’s Barry said. “That is the theory that courts are saying is a path by which gender dysphoria finds coverage under the ADA and Rehab Act.”
The federal government has thrown its weight behind this theory too. In a handful of briefs filed in employment, prisoner rights and other civil rights cases over gender dysphoria since 2015, the Department of Justice under both the Obama and Trump administrations interpreted the ADA to cover gender dysphoria because it said the condition may have physical roots.
“While no clear scientific consensus appears to exist regarding the specific origins of genderdysphoria (i.e., whether it can be traced to neurological, genetic or hormonal sources), the current research increasingly indicates that gender dysphoria has physiological or biological roots,” the Justice Department argued in the Blatt case in 2015.
The Justice Department again made the same argument under the Trump administration twoyears later, insisting in a transgender woman’s case over New Jersey’s birth certificate rules that her gender dysphoria counts as a disability because she had plausibly alleged it stemmed from a physical impairment.
Some Gender Dysphoria Bias Claims Shot Down
On the other side of things, courts in Ohio, Alabama and Virginia have rejected some individuals’ claims that their gender dysphoria is protected by the anti-discrimination law, though none of these courts undermined the physical impairment theory.
U.S. District Judge George C. Smith in Ohio primarily took aim at the Blatt decision when he threw out construction worker Tracy Parker’s allegation of disability discrimination based on her gender dysphoria. The judge ruled in 2018 that he can find “no support, textual or otherwise” for the interpretation set out in Blatt.
“The clear result is that Congress intended to exclude from the ADA’s protection both disabling and nondisabling gender identity disorders that do not result from a physical impairment,” he said.
Parker couldn’t move ahead on the physical impairment theory because she’d left that argument out of her complaint, Judge Smith said. While Parker had cited medical research in follow-up filings, Judge Smith said he can’t consider evidence lodged outside her complaint.
In 2019 in Alabama, a federal judge said in a workplace bias case against Northrop Grumman that the terms “gender identity disorder” and “gender dysphoria” are legally synonymous — also countering the Blatt decision — and that there was no physical impairment behind the Northrop Grumman employee’s condition to trigger the ADA.
“A condition of ‘gender dysphoria’ (formerly described as a ‘gender identity disorder’) that does not result from a physical impairment is expressly excluded from the definition of disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” U.S. District Judge C. Lynwood Smith said.
Just last month, a transgender woman who was incarcerated in Virginia wasn’t able to convince a federal judge that her gender dysphoria counted as a disability because she hadn’t made the physical impairment argument either.
“There’s been a new and increasing number of decisions on this topic and courts have really come out in all different directions,” Eckert Seamans’ Kennedy said.
Bostock’s Impact On Gender Dysphoria Case Law
While experts agree this question will crop up more often in the courts, they say the rate at which cases are filed could be affected by how broadly the government and the courts interpret the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark LBGTQ rights decision in Bostock v. Clayton County.
In the watershed ruling, the justices made clear that Title VII, the federal law barring discrimination in the workplace, bans bias on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Because transgender workers now have more protections under federal law, DiMuroGinsberg’s Mook said it’s possible that those who suffer from gender dysphoria may choose to sue only under Title VII and forego their ADA claim, potentially leading to a drop-off in the employment-related cases surrounding gender dysphoria.
“Some of the ADA litigation is really going to depend upon how broadly the Title VII protections are interpreted for transgender individuals, the narrower those protections are interpreted to be, litigation under the ADA would be more prominent,” DiMuroGinsberg’s Mook said.
At the moment, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has given Bostock a wide reach, making clear in guidance rolled out this summer that employers must accommodate their LBGTQ employees when it comes to dress codes, pronouns, bathrooms and other issues.
However, this doesn’t mean these claims aren’t still going to bubble up. Earlier this month, a former associate professor at Pennsylvania State University hit the institution with a discrimination lawsuit claiming they were denied tenure because they’re transgender and the school violated the ADA by not accommodating their gender dysphoria.
“I do think we will see more disability claims in the gender dysphoria claims across the board,” said Quinnipiac University’s Barry.
–Additional reporting by Adam Lidgett, Amanda Ottaway, Vin Gurrieri and Braden Campbell. Editing by Vincent Sherry.
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