The Federal Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which covers Arlington and the rest of Northern Virginia, recently decided two employment law cases that remind businesses of the challenges of complying with Federal employment laws. The rulings in both cases hinged on the actions of employers when first confronted with notice of potential discrimination.
Court Dismisses Employee’s Disability Discrimination Claim After Employer Responds
In the first case, Mongrut-Avanzini v. Commonwealth of Virginia, the employee worked for the Fairfax County Alcohol and Drug Services program and suffered a hearing impairment. She asked the County for several workplace accommodations, including that communications with her be done face-to-face, that copies of slides and agendas be provided to her before meetings, and that sufficient lighting and a desktop computer be provided. She provided Fairfax County with medical documentation supporting her requested accommodations. The next day, the County provided the employee with a tape recorder to assist her with her listening duties.
Once notified of a potential disability and the desire for potential accommodation, employers should take proactive steps to respond and assist. When the employee later complained that she did not receive all of the accommodations she requested, the Court noted the quick action of the County to accommodate her, and found that there was no intent to discriminate by the County.
After her termination, the employee brought a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), asserting that the County discriminated against her and that it failed to accommodate her disability. The Court granted the County’s summary judgment motion and dismissed the suit, finding no evidence of discrimination or failure to accommodate. Rather, the Court held, the employee’s hearing impairment did not rise to the level of a disability because she was only limited in understanding words in high frequencies in noisy rooms. In addition, the Court found that the employee’s documented performance issues disproved any claim of discrimination.
As this case shows, businesses should take quick action when notified by employees of medical conditions that may affect their ability to perform their duties. The law imposes a duty to accommodate in such circumstances, if reasonably possible, and obtaining competent legal advice to respond promptly and effectively can make all the difference in avoiding liability.
Employee Can Proceed with Discrimination Claim of Insults Allegedly Made Before Manager
In the second case, Henderson v. Labor Finders of Virginia, the Court denied an employer’s motion to dismiss an employee’s claim that management saw him be ridiculed as a homosexual and did nothing to stop it. In this case the employer, a temporary placement firm, was accused of denying the employee assignments based on concerns about his sexuality. The employee also claimed that co-workers taunted him in front of the branch manager and assistant manager, calling him inappropriate names. As this case shows, employers must take action when they learn of accusations of a hostile work environment or harassment, and cannot wait for a complaint to be made of inappropriate co-worker conduct.
While the Court recognized that Federal law does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, it noted that Federal law prohibiting “sex stereotyping” discrimination often applies when sexual orientation insults are made. Federal law generally sets a high standard for asserting a sexual harassment claim, requiring that the alleged conduct be unwelcome and as severe and pervasive as to alter the terms and conditions of employment. Nevertheless, the Court found that the employee stated a claim of sexual harassment based on the frequency of sex stereotyping insults alleged and his claim that management employees heard the insults being made in their presence and did nothing to stop them.
The Bottom Line
As these decisions show, employers must be vigilant about maintaining an equal opportunity workplace. When an employer sees the first sign of a potential discrimination issue – whether by receiving notice of an employee’s medical impairment, or by witnessing ill treatment by a co-worker – the company should immediately contact legal counsel. A good employment lawyer can help management get to the root of employment relations problems and address any possible discrimination issue that may exist before it results in legal liability.