Articles Posted in Americans with Disabilities Act

The United States Court of Appeals Third Circuit has reversed a district court’s dismissal of a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by a registered nurse against her former employer. In the lawsuit captioned Aleka Ruggiero v. Mount Nittany Medical Center, the registered nurse claims that she was unlawfully terminated from her employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for being terminated after refusing to get required vaccination because of her disability.

The plaintiff, Aleka Ruggiero, was employed as a registered nurse at Mount Nittany Medical Center before being terminated in July of 2015. According to the Complaint, Ms. Ruggiero suffers from severe anxiety and eosinophilic esophagitis, which limited her certain areas of life, including her ability to eat, sleep and engage in social communications. Despite her disabilities, Ms. Ruggiero was able to perform her job duties.

However, Ms. Ruggiero was required by the medical to receive a vaccination for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (the “TDAP”) vaccination as a result of her position as a nurse.  After not obtaining the vaccination prior to the deadline mandated by the hospital, Ms. Ruggiero provided a medical note from her doctor that medically exempted her from having to receive the vaccination. Mount Nittany Medical Center rejected the doctor’s note and requested further detail concerning Ms. Ruggiero’s medical inability to get the TDAP vaccination. After the treating doctor provided further information from the treating doctor, the medical center again rejected it as insufficient.  The medical center also rejected Ms. Ruggiero’s request to wear a surgical mask while at work as a different form of reasonable accommodation. After rejecting both reasonable accommodations requests, Ms. Ruggiero was eventually terminated after she missed the new imposed deadline to obtain the TDAP vaccination.

As reported by Asbury Park Press, a Holmdel High School student is claiming that school officials prohibited her from coming on to the stage to receive her high school diploma during last week’s graduation ceremony.  The incident has sparked outrage from some in the community concerning the school’s lack of planning and communication to accommodate the student’s ability to come onto the stage with her wheelchair.  To their credit, school officials  fully accepted blame and have apologized to the student for what it has referred to as a significant mistake.  This unfortunate incident is an example of the profound impact that a failure to provide necessary accommodations to a disabled person can have in his or her life experiences.

Individuals who suffer from disabilities face significant obstacles throughout their lives, which include often being excluded from certain activities and other life events.  Both federal and state laws, including the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination were enacted to prohibit certain forms of discrimination in employment, schools and in other public places of accommodation.  These anti-discrimination disability laws are designed to provide disabled employees the assistance they need in order to be employed, receive an education and be properly accommodated in the public domain.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination specifically identifies schools as a place of public accommodation.  A place of public accommodation may not discriminate against disabled persons and must provide reasonable accommodations unless it is shown that the requested or needed accommodation would impose an undue hardship.  If a disabled student needs or requests a reasonable accommodation, the school must initiate an interactive process to search and determine what appropriate reasonable accommodation is necessary. This interactive process requires the school to take some initiative and identify the potential reasonable accommodations that could be adopted to overcome the student’s precise limitations resulting from the disability. The law requires all parties to act in good faith to explore potential accommodations.  A school that obstructs or delays the interactive process or fails to communicate with the other party will be viewed as not acting in good faith.  When this occurs, the courts will attempt to isolate the cause of the breakdown and then assign responsibility.

The United States Supreme Court has declined review of a 7th Circuit Court of Appeal decision holding that the American’s with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not require employers to provide any reasonable accommodation of an extended medical leave for any more than twelve (12) weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

In  Severson v. Heartland Wood, Inc. No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), the employee, Mr. Severson, went out on company approved FMLA leave for severe back pain in June 2013.  The day before he was supposed to return to work, he underwent back surgery necessitating an additional 2 or 3 months of medical leave to recover from the surgery. Mr. Severson, having exhausted his FMLA leave, asked his employer Heartland for the additional medical leave.  The company refused and terminated his employment.  Mr. Severson then sued his employer arguing that he was not being given the extra leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The District Court sided with the employer on a summary judgement motion.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed, holding that the employer did not have to provide the additional leave other than the 12 weeks of medical leave available under the FMLA. Specifically, the Seventh stated that, “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” The Court also reasoned that the goal of an ADA accommodation is to allow disabled employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs, not to excuse them from working and that “a multi month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”

The New Jersey Appellate Division decided that a company’s mandatory program and policy implemented only against employees suffering from alcoholism is a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In A.D.P. v. ExxonMobil Research Company, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (Exxon) forced employees identified as recovering alcoholics to sign a contract that required only those employees to submit to mandatory clinical drug testing for two (2) years and monitoring for an additional three years. Other employees were not subject to drug or alcohol testing except for cause. In reversing the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Exxon, the Appellate Division determined that the additional terms and conditions of employment imposed by Exxon based on Plaintiff’s disability of alcoholism constitutes a claim for disability discrimination.

Plaintiff began working for a predecessor company of Exxon in 1978 as a research technician. She continued with Exxon and worked for a total of twenty-nine years. Plaintiff was consistently ranked as a top performer and received eight promotions from 1983 through 2005 becoming a Senior Research Associate. After the death of Plaintiff’s husband in 2004, she suffered from depression and other medical conditions. In August of 2007, Plaintiff disclosed to a nurse at Exxon that she was an alcoholic and planned to check herself into an inpatient rehabilitation program in order to receive treatment for her alcohol dependency and depression. Plaintiff successfully completed inpatient rehabilitation at Carrier Clinic and outpatient treatment at Hunterdon Medical Center. Before Plaintiff was allowed to return to work at Exxon, she was required to sign an after-care contract pursuant to Exxon’s company-approved after-care program. The after-care contract identified Plaintiff as an employee recovering “from chemical dependency” and mandated she participate in the after care program, totally abstain from alcohol and drugs not prescribed by a physician, submit to clinical substance testing for a minimum of two years after completion of a Primary Treatment Program and be monitored for an additional three years. The mandatory testing was to be periodic and unannounced. The policy applied to Plaintiff also stated that an employee suffering from alcohol or drug dependency that refuses rehab, fails to respond to treatment, or fails to exhibit satisfactory work performance would be disciplined up to and including termination.

In fear of losing her job, Plaintiff signed the after-care contract and submitted to nine (9) random breathalyzer tests between October 29, 2007 and August 20, 2008. Exxon had no reasonable cause to believe Plaintiff had been drinking alcohol at work or was intoxicated when these breathalyzer tests were administered. The tests were administered solely because of the after-care contract Plaintiff was required to sign as a recovering alcoholic. On August 22, 2008, Plaintiff was forced to take yet another “random” breathalyzer test. This test produced blood alcohol concentration (BAC) readings of .047 and 0.43.3. These readings are well below the threshold BAC of 0.08 set by New Jersey law as driving under the influence. Plaintiff was terminated on August 26, 2008. Exxon articulated that the only reason Plaintiff was terminated was because she violated the after-care contract in having a positive test. Exxon confirmed that, “an employee’s status as an alcoholic is the lone trigger for requirements of total abstinence and random testing without cause.” The company also confirmed that Plaintiff performance had absolutely nothing to do with her termination and that even if she was in the top 1 percent of her group, she would still have been terminated for failing the test.

HBO Real Sports aired a story last night about Houston Rockets rookie Royce White and his ongoing battle for the Houston Rockets to provide him his requested reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. White suffers from mental health disabilities, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder and has not been able to practice or play a game as a result of not being provided his requested for reasonable accommodations.

After a storied career at Iowa State, White was drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 16th pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Prior to the draft, the Houston Rockets, along with other NBA teams, were aware of White’s mental health disabilities and the risks associated with his disabilities that could impact his ability to perform in the NBA. After being drafted, and after signing a 3.3 million dollar contract, White has not been able to play because he believes he has not received the requested accommodations he needs for his disability.

White has requested that the Houston Rockets provide him a medical health protocol as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. More specifically, White has asked for a driver to drive him to all NBA games, which Houston has agreed to provide him. The current sticking point between White and the Houston Rockets is White’s request to have an independent doctor have the final say as to whether White is medically able to play a particular game. White says that this is necessary because the Houston Rockets’ doctors work for the Houston Rockets and therefore have the Houston Rockets’ best interest and not his in mind when making the decision as to whether he is medically able to play. Houston Rockets will not grant this particular request because they feel it is unreasonable. After talks concerning this request hit a standstill, the Houston Rockets suspended White on January 6, 2013 and have stopped paying him his 3.3 million dollar salary.