Harassment Claims Upheld under ADA

May 7, 2001 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Disabled workers have found success in suing for workplace harassment under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Two recent federal appellate court rulings have supported that position in back-to-back cases of first impression from the conservative 4th and 5th circuits.

In both cases the plaintiffs essentially argued that an ADA hostile work environment claim was not actionable because neither the Supreme Court nor the federal appellate courts had expressly upheld such a claim previously. 

Letter of the Law
However, both appellate courts looked to the language of the ADA and Title VII, in support of those claims. 

In fact, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz of the 4th Circuit concluded that Congress enacted the ADA after the Supreme Court’s ruling that hostile work environment claims can be brought under Title VII, according to the National Law Center.

The decisions are “very straightforward applications of Supreme Court doctrine” developed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, says employment law scholar Charles Craver of George Washington University National Law Center. 

The nation’s highest court has previously recognized hostile work environment claims under Title VII, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion.

Fifth Circuit Finding

In the case of Flowers v. Southern Regional Physician Services, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals the court supported the claims of Sandra Flowers, who said her working environment changed dramatically after her supervisor found that she was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. 

She had been employed for two years as a medical assistant at Southern Regional Physician Services in Baton Rouge, Louisiana before contracting the disease from her husband. 

According to Flowers, her supervisor went from being a close friend to lowering her high performance appraisals, placing her on probation and forcing her to undergo four random drug tests in one week. 

Southern Regional’s president allegedly refused to shake hands with Flowers, called her a disparaging name and fired her.

A trial jury found that Flowers had been subjected to disability-based harassment that created a hostile work environment, awarding her $350,000. The award was subsequently reduced to $100,000 by the trial judge.

Fourth Circuit Followup
In the Fox v. General Motors, Robert Fox had worked in General Motors’ Martinsburg, West Virgina plant for 12 years when he severely injured his back.  He returned after an extended disability leave under medical restrictions that he only do light-duty work.

From that point in October 1994 until August 1995, Fox claimed he was subjected to a barrage of harassment from supervisors and co-workers and ordered to perform jobs that went beyond his medical restrictions. As a result, he reinjured his back.

A trial jury awarded Fox $200,000 on his hostile environment claim and $7,000 for medical expenses and lost wages.

To establish a claim, the appellate courts found that a plaintiff must prove:

  • that he or she is a qualified individual with a disability
  • that he or she was subjected to unwanted harassment
  • that the harassment was based on the disability
  • that the harassment was sufficiently pervasive or severe as to alter a term, condition or privilege of employment
  • some factual basis to impute liability for the harassment to the employer

– Nevin Adams            editors@plansponsor.com