Disability Discrimination

This blog post was inspired by the amazing news that my partner, Patrick Murphy, was nominated by President Barack Obama as the United States Under Secretary of the Army.  My first reaction was to be impressed at this well-deserved honor for Patrick.  My second reaction was “what does the Under Secretary of the Army do?”

7995575_sAfter some quick Internet research, I discovered that the Under Secretary is the second-highest ranking civilian official of the United States Department of the Army.  After that I was even more impressed with Patrick’s accomplishments. It also got me thinking about a situation that seems to arise in a lot of organizations.

Imagine that after some organizational changes in the organization, a new head of a department reviewed the people in the department to see what everyone did just to get a handle on how to supervise the team.  After completing the review, there were several large question marks about what people did in certain positions.  Upon further investigation, there seemed to be one position that no one could explain what that person did.

This is problematic for a lot of reasons, not just how to evaluate performance when you do not know what tasks the person is supposed to be accomplishing.  Another issue issue that arises is dealing with accommodation requests.  In order to address accommodation requests, it is generally necessary to know what are a persons essential and non-essential job functions to evaluate whether an accommodation is reasonable.

It is far easier to make the accommodation analysis if there are written job descriptions that accurately describe the job functions of particular positions.  This helps to establish expectations for the position as well serves as a guideline for what non-essential functions may be removed as accommodation requests.

Also, having written job descriptions that are given to employees helps employers defend against claims of failure to accommodate.  With a written job description, it is difficult for an employee to argue that a job function is not essential or that an employer belatedly made up a job description to add tasks as essential to avoid making an accommodation.

Jobs do evolve over time so employers should periodically review job descriptions to determine if they still accurately describe the position.  If job descriptions are changed, it is helpful if a copy of the new job description is given to the employee and the employee acknowledges receipt of the job description.

Small WorldThe recent measles outbreak making headlines at Disney properties in California has been unnerving, to say the least. As any parent can attest, a visit to Disney is likely to be on someone’s wishlist at some point (as my two small children have already made clear!). Beyond planning a visit to see Mickey and Minnie, managers and HR professionals should also be cognizant of the disease’s spread, recently to New York, and be savvy to their obligations and restrictions vis-à-vis vaccinations and medical leave.

Must an employer require their employees to be vaccinated against measles? Generally, no, absent some specific health or safety regulation that may govern a particular industry in a particular jurisdiction (e.g. healthcare workers/first responders). For most employers, this is not an issue.

May an employer require employees to be vaccinated against measles? This is where things get tricky. There is nothing that would per se prevent requiring employees to be vaccinated against measles in order to work. However, dangers abound. Federal, state and local anti-discrimination provisions may require exceptions, primarily for religious and/or medical reasons. If the employee is in a high risk occupation, such as emergency medical services, the law provides more leeway, however each employer’s situation needs to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

A concerned employer could, alternatively, offer voluntary measles vaccinations, free of cost, which would provide employees some level of so called “herd immunity.” However, remember, you generally cannot ask about or disclose an employee’s vaccination status due to various privacy laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Proper consent forms should also be obtained through an authorized vaccination provider.

If an employee does contract measles, it may be reasonable and/or required to force an employee to stay home (preferably on paid leave) until they are healthy to avoid its spread in the workplace. Depending on the employer’s size, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protected leave must also be offered and appropriate FMLA notices given. Confidentiality regarding the employee’s medical status must also be maintained and any discriminatory employment actions avoided.

As always, we recommend giving your friendly local labor and employment attorney a call to discuss the complexities of any particular issues you may have.

Perhaps this is the coda to the story of Henry’s Boys — perhaps not.

Readers no doubt recall Henry’s Turkey — the poster bird for the abuse of intellectually disabled employees.  We wrote about the legal case on behalf of these disabled employees many times — as recently as last week (see below).

Dan Barry in today’s New York Times reports that four of Henry’s Boys, including the fellow who he spotlighted in the Times last week (and we reported about), were removed from their spare and primitive bunkhouse by social services, “and their treatment is now being investigated by various local, state and federal agencies.”bunkhouse : Oregon - August 1, 2012: An old, weatherbeaten building that served as the main bunkhouse for an old cinnabar mine that is slowly decaying in the Ochoco Mountains in Central Oregon.


The Legal Case Against Henry’s

To recap (hopefully for the last time), on May 3, 2013 we reported about the $240,000,000 jury verdict against Henry’s Turkey Service (later reduced) where:  ”Intellectually disabled workers at Henry’s Turkey Service in Iowa were paid only $65 dollars per month eviscerating turkeys on an assembly line, we posted last September.

In an ADA case brought by the EEOC, an expert witness said that the company exploited the workers because they had intellectual disabilities, and simply did not know better.  She stated that the employer’s conduct “including acts of deliberate misrepresentation” about wages and expenditures, deprived the workers of “economic independence and self-sufficiency.” The company “took advantage of the workers … knowing that they would not likely be discovered because the workers were disabled.”

The NYT’s Description Of The Conditions At Henry’s

Last week’s piece by Dan Barry highlighted one of “Henry’s boys,” who, when he was 18:

“was selected to live and learn basic skills at a ranch in Texas’ Hill Country. The operation, Henry’s Turkey Service, trained Mr. Jones and dozens of other young men like him — including his brother — in the artificial insemination of turkeys: namely, to catch and milk the toms, and rush the semen to the henhouse.

The men became proficient in this dirty job, and a demand developed for their services. Gradually, the company dispatched crews to work at turkey plants in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and South Carolina, moving employees around like chess pawns to meet the needs of clients.

Most of the operations eventually closed, leaving only a bunkhouse in Atalissa, Iowa, where Carl Wayne Jones wound up, and one here in Newberry [South Carolina], where Leon Jones landed.

The owners of Henry’s Turkey Service maintained that they had taken in men whom no one else wanted. They paid them a subminimum wage under a federal law — one they abused — that permits lower wages for people with disabilities, based on productivity. They deducted most of the men’s earnings to cover room, board and other expenses. And they allowed their Atalissa bunkhouse to descend into squalor, neglect and abuse.”



An Illinois manufacturer of steel castings for the rail industry was just sued by the EEOC for allegedly violating the ADA.  The EEOC alleges that the company illegally asks job applicants if they “have a history of carpal tunnel syndrome and gives them a nerve conduction tests.”  Seehttp://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/11-20-14.cfm.

carpal tunnel : Carpal Tunnel Syndrome cartoon of a man with a sore wrist. Illustration

Although the EEOC press release does not clearly explain the company’s professed need for such questions or the nerve test, it may be assumed that the company certainly views these as job-related.

In any event, the EEOC said that “the most current relevant published medical literature does not support the use of such tests alone, or the use of prior medical history alone, to predict the development of carpal tunnel. … The result of these practices, according to the agency, was to deny employment opportunities to a class of people who had a history of carpal tunnel syndrome or who [the company] believed might develop that condition.”


As noted above, it is not clear to us whether there is a relationship between the job duties of this particular position and carpal tunnel syndrome.  But we may assume that the company feels that there is such a relationship, and that it is even possible that the EEOC may agree — the EEOC questioned the medical appropriateness or accuracy of the nerve test as a predictor and made no blanket statement that carpal tunnel syndrome does not prevent an employee from performing the relevant job duties with or without accommodations — as might be expected from the EEOC if that were the case.

In any event, under the ADA the EEOC has gone after employers who make stereotypical assumptions about disabilities and the ability to perform the job, i.e, the perception of disability.   Read our blog of yesterday.

Said an EEOC attorney, quite accurately summarizing the relevant provisions of the ADA:

“Employment decisions, including hiring decisions, must be based on a person’s ability to perform the job, not on stereotypes, assumptions or conjecture. An individualized assessment of the applicant’s present ability to safely perform the job duties is required if an employer screens out an applicant based on medical tests or exams in the hiring process.”


If you were a critical care hospital would you fire a nurse with cancer who asked for an accommodation to get chemotherapy?  Even if you had meritorious grounds, would you do it, given the stark appearance of an ADA violation, as well as the horrendous publicity?

We wrote about such a case in a post a year ago called “Critical Care Hospital Fires Nurse Who Asked For Chemo Accommodation.” It discussed a newly-filed EEOC suit against a North Carolina full-service critical access hospital for refusing to accommodate a registered nurse’s need for cancer chemo treatments, and then firing her.

We asked then:  “What were they thinking?”

cancer care : Mid adult woman talking to doctor about her diagnosis

We don’t know, but after a year of litigation with the EEOC, the facility has just agreed to a settlement of $85,000.

It was only a matter of time.

And an EEOC attorney underscored our constant warning that the EEOC was targeting health care facilities for alleged ADA discrimination:  “One would hope that hospitals and other health care facilities would understand and respect an employee’s need for an accommodation resulting from cancer treatments.”

The EEOC Has Targeted Medical Facilities For ADA Violations For A Long Time

We have a particular penchant for, among other things, tracking new cases filed (or settled) by the EEOC accusing medical and health care providers of discriminating against people with disabilities (mainly because, as employment attorneys, we are amazed at how obtuse and oblivious some employers can be).

In that same post last year we noted that the EEOC had also just sued a Michigan operator of a chain of assisted living facilities for violating the ADA.  The claim – after hiring an administrator of the new facility, the company learned from her at her physical examination that she suffered from epilepsy.  What did they do?  Fired her the first day that she worked.

And then, “as a postscript,” we mentioned that the EEOC had just reported that a second North Carolina health care facility agreed to pay $51,000 to settle an ADA suit brought on behalf of a certified nursing assistant with asthma who was required by a new company policy to supervise residents during smoking breaks, which made her asthma worse. She submitted a doctor’s note and requested to be excused from this chore.

She was fired.

asthma and smoking : smoking causes disease in children

Do Not Succumb To “Baseless Myths, Fears And Stereotypes About Persons With Disabilities 

We cited EEOC attorneys who said that the EEOC “will vigorously pursue violations of the ADA when employers base their decisions on baseless myths, fears and stereotypes about persons with epilepsy,” and that “Employers must be sensitive and reasonable about an employee’s complaints about a workplace hazard to their health, and health-related facilities should be especially cognizant of this.”

We have often cautioned employers about succumbing to “myths, fears and stereotypes” when it comes to people with disabilities.  See, for example, our post about an army veteran with a prosthetic hand.


When will employers listen to us?


Another employer has settled a GINA class action brought by the EEOC – for $187,500.

The EEOC told a Practising Law Institute conference two years ago of a number of workplace issues which it planned to address, one of which was  targeting violations of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”).  The law was new (2009), and few cases had been filed.

What Is “GINA?”

GINA makes it illegal to discriminate against employees or job applicants because of genetic information, which includes family medical history, and restricts employers from requesting, requiring or purchasing such information.

Under GINA, employers cannot, in the hiring process, request such genetic information and family medical history.

genetics : Orange cartoon character with loupe and dna. White background.

The First GINA Lawsuit

The first lawsuit ever filed by the EEOC alleging genetic discrimination under GINA was settled in May of 2013.  The EEOC alleged in that Oklahoma case that the employer refused to hire a woman who had been given an offer of a permanent position because tests it had conducted concluded that she had carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”). The company had sent her to an outside laboratory for a drug test and physical, and there she had to fill out a questionnaire disclosing the existence of numerous listed disorders in her family medical history.

According to the EEOC, “[t]he questionnaire asked about the existence of heart disease, hypertension, cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes, arthritis and ‘mental disorders’ in her family. [She] was then subjected to medical testing, from which the examiner concluded that further evaluation was needed to determine whether [she] suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS).”

Although her own doctor found that she did not have CTS, her offer was revoked because the company’s outside lab indicated otherwise.

genetics : Genetics sign on a white background. Part of a series.

GINA And The EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”)

On May 17, 2013 we reported that in accordance with the priorities in its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) (and its promise to the PLI conference) the EEOC filed a GINA class action against a Corning, N.Y. nursing and rehabilitation center, its first systemic lawsuit under GINA.

The EEOC alleged that the company conducted post-offer, pre-employment medical exams of applicants, and annual exams if the person was hired, and requested family medical history.  The case was settled for $110,400.

The New Settlement

The EEOC has just announced that it has settled another GINA class action brought against three California farm suppliers who required job applicants to take physical exams and fill out questionnaires which asked about medical conditions, and the applicants’ family medical histories.

One applicant was required to report disability-related information and family medical history which was unrelated to the job requirements, and ultimately refused hiring “due to his perceived disability.”


An EEOC attorney cautioned employers: “The law with respect to genetic information is relatively new, and this is one of the first cases resolved in litigation by the EEOC in this district.  … Employers need to familiarize themselves on the prohibitions with respect to pre-employment inquiries and maintaining the confidentiality of medical information.”

Another EEOC attorney summed up compliance with GINA:  “There are strict guidelines prohibiting inquiries into a job applicant’s medical condition and disability prior to hire. Even after hire, employers should avoid asking questions about an applicant’s medical condition if it is not job-related. With respect to genetic information – or family medical history – the law is even more restrictive in that most employers may never ask or acquire genetic information from applicants or employees.”


Last week we reported about the EEOC entering into a consent decree settling a disability suit for $30,000.  The suit was against a Minneapolis-area home health care provider for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to a housekeeping employee who suffered from fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis — and then firing her.

We stressed a few major points which employers should “take away” from this case:
Train your managers and employees in all aspects of the ADA;
Always engage in an interactive process re seeking a reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities; and
Do not rely upon stereotypical assumptions about people with disabilities.
One of our readers, Suzanne Benoit, a management consultant in Portland Maine, sent in an interesting comment in which she provided some additional helpful “takeaways” and mantras, such as “focus on performance not assumptions.”
She wrote:
“Great information Richard, thanks for posting it. For me, the bottom line is to focus on what is happening inside the office and relate it all to performance, not assumptions. The article also points out that managers and supervisors have to be trained to refrain from assuming or discussing anything about employees who are performing their duties at an acceptable level.
There is another issue in these situations worth noting, though not at issue in this case. In addition to training management, as the article points out, I find that it also helps if all new employees are oriented initially NOT to share information about their illnesses freely with coworkers.
You can’t control this completely but you can let employees know that the company has an obligation to maintain employee privacy regarding all medical conditions no matter how small.

talkative : High angle full length portrait of a loquacious long-winded businessman looking up at the camera talking with his mouth open emphasising the point with his finger Stock Photo

When [employees] share information freely, the employer has less control over what opinions coworkers and supervisors form about the employee’s ability to carry out their duties.

Employees will make assumptions based on very little real data!”

stereotypical : A man rides an arrow to jump over the word Stereotype to illustrate the power of justice and fairness in overcoming stereotyping, discrimination and racism


Our recent post on sleep apnea as a disability brought some good reader questions and comments which bear posting.  One, from a Mexican lawyer, and a second, from a Canadian talent officer, ask some good questions about American laws — does anyone want to try responding?

The last brings Shakespeare (Shakespeare?) to bear on sleep apnea.

Shakespeare : William Shakespeare in period clothing sitting in school desk with laptop and shrugging at viewer.

Luis Daccarett, Judicial Law Clerk in the 2nd Constitutional Court of Appeals in Mexico:

“I wonder if the real underlying cause was apnea or insubordination.

Two questions arise from my reading, if I may:

(1)  Why wasn’t he offered his job back instead with the police? In the event he were, did he have to take it?

(2)  Is the paying of damages the only way to settle an employment dispute in legal America?

Just curious!”

Sonia Dhaliwal, a corporate chief talent officer in Toronto:

“I’m a HR manager from Canada who advises for our divisions in the US.  I’m still trying to get to know my US federal and state employment law.

I have a truck driver who suffers from insomnia. There’s a lot of safety concerns in his case. He’s off now and not driving, but we’ve considered letting him go. Would insomnia also be considered as a disability?   It’s part of his essential job duty to drive and there’s no way to accommodate him.

I’ve asked for a fit for duty assessment to be filled out by his doctor or provide us at least with what we can accommodate him with and it’s been 3 weeks and hasn’t returned any medical documentation.  And it’s in the state of Illinois which is considered “employment at will.”

I’m wondering if we can terminate him? There’s potential safety risk for himself and others. Even if he’s prescribed the proper medication it doesn’t guarantee that he won’t fall asleep at the wheel. If he was in an accident, it could be a potential liability because we didn’t protect the public or him.

Any thoughts?”

sleep : Side view of businesswoman sleeping on counter in office Stock Photo

Finally, Johann Scheepers, Commissioner at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation & Arbitration, in Pretoria, SA, our faithful rapporteur from South Africa, had this sleep-related case to add, in which he weaves in the immortal words of the great Bard:

“Apnea is indeed a serious medical condition and classified as a disability. Without timely medical intervention the said ‘sleep disorder’ may have disastrous consequences.

Having read the posting a recent matter came to mind that was before the South African Labor Court in the form of an application for review of an arbitration award.  The Applicant contended that the presiding Commissioner [Arbitrator] had based his findings on irrelevant considerations, that that the award was irrational and unreasonable. However, a further unusual ground for review was raised – that the Commissioner had snoozed through the arbitration hearing.

The Court set down a new ground of review:  statutory Arbitrators must be alert and awake at all times during the proceedings, or they perpetrate a “defect” within the scope of section 145(2) of the LRA.

Not applying the mind is bad enough. But succumbing to “Nature’s Soft Nurse” takes the cake.

The writings of Shakespeare came to mind:

‘O sleep, O gentle sleep, nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee, that thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down, and steep my senses in forgetfulness’.   [William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, Act III, sc. 1].”



A recent post of ours dealt with a new decision from an Illinois federal court which held that the employer had enough facts about an employee and her condition to infer an “implicit” request for an accommodation and a need to engage in the “interactive process.”

This led us to ask:  Does an employee who needs an accommodation for a disabling condition actually have to request it, or can/should/must the employer infer such a request from the circumstances of the case?

asking for help : A person drawing and pointing at a What can we do for you Chalk illustration Stock Photo

We think that these questions need a thorough discussion with experts in the field, and so we published some good reader comments.

Here are two more incisive comments:

Geoffrey Mort, an employment Lawyer in NYC:

“This is a troubling but important question. Many employees with disabilities who are having trouble at work and could benefit from a reasonable accommodation have no idea that they are entitled to request one. I’ve handled several matters where an employee who was likely disabled under the amended ADA talked to HR and others in the workplace about their problems handling certain assignments, but didn’t know about reasonable accommodations and thus didn’t ask for one.

It’s not realistic to expect such employees to know the law or consult a lawyer, and courts should recognize that in some situations there can be implied requests for an accommodation that trigger the responsibility to begin an interactive process about what can help the employee capably perform his/her duties.”

Kerry Rieder-McLaughlin, an HR consultant in Montgomery, Illinois:

“In situations where someone has an obvious disability, i.e., pregnant, in a wheelchair or obviously has trouble seeing, it is safe for the employer to ask if the employee would require an accommodation to make doing their job more comfortable, etc.  In addition, as the NLRB noted, if the employer has enough information that they should have known that a disability existed then they can begin that discussion as well.

I strongly urge against employers becoming mindreaders, however, and encourage them not to ask someone if they have a disability when they only have suspicion of one. I believe that employees with disabilities are savvy enough to know what their rights are and what they need in order to perform the essential functions of a job they are qualified for, whether it is a magnifying glass, an additional break, or an ergonomic workspace.”

Complying with the ADA in hiring (and in the workplace) means not only “treating people equally despite whatever physical challenges they may face” (as per the EEOC), but also not making assumptions or buying into biases or stereotypes about an applicant’s abilities based on a disability.

Treating someone adversely or differently based upon a “perception of disability” violates the ADA as much as discriminating based upon the  disability itself.

As put by an EEOC trial attorney in another case:

“In this case an employee suffered financially because an employer misjudged her condition and her ability to work. … [E]mployers should not make decisions based on perceptions about someone’s supposed impairment. This case should remind all employers that the ADA requires employers to make an individualized assessment about an applicant or employee’s ability to do the job instead of acting out of speculative fears or biases.”  stereotypes : A man rides an arrow to jump over the word Stereotype to illustrate the power of justice and fairness in overcoming stereotyping, discrimination and racism

This point is illustrated in a new case filed by the EEOC under the ADA.  A restaurant in North Carolina fired an applicant for a busboy position as soon as he reported for work when the owner saw that his arm was amputated above his elbow.  The owner allegedly told him that he “could not bus tables because he had only one arm,” even though the applicant told the owner that he had bussed tables at another restaurant.

An EEOC attorney said that “Employers need to understand the importance of treating people equally despite whatever physical challenges they may face. In this case, we allege that [the applicant] was not hired because of assumptions made about his abilities based on his arm amputation. Employers must be careful not to violate federal law by making assumptions about people with disabilities.”

Takeaway:  Don’t forget the “perception of disability” provision of the ADA — it has doomed many an employer!