Court recognizes 'hostile work environment' claims under ADA

A “hostile work environment” claim is one in which an employee claims an employer maintained a workplace so unbearable due to discriminatory actions of coworkers or supervisors that it was impossible for the employee to do his job.

Courts have long held that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers can be held accountable for harassment and discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin that create a hostile work environment.

A recent decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals suggests that employers who allow hostile work environments for employees with disabilities to fester may face liability under the Americans with
Disabilities Act.

In the case, Costco employee Christopher Fox suffered from the neurological condition Tourette’s syndrome, which is characterized by facial, muscular and verbal tics. He started receiving reprimands over alleged performance issues.

Fox was accused of leaving shopping carts in the wrong place and of making comments to customers that made them feel uncomfortable, but that he couldn’t control due to his condition. He apparently was suspended for three days and moved to a less customer-facing position.

At that point, coworkers allegedly started mimicking and mocking his physical and verbal tics. Managers apparently witnessed the harassment and allowed it to persist. The ridicule ultimately resulted in a workplace panic attack that required EMTs to escort Fox from the building.

When Fox tried to bring a disability discrimination claim under the ADA based on a hostile work environment, a federal district judge ruled that no such action exists under that law.

But the 2nd Circuit reversed the decision and reinstated his suit.

Specifically, the court pointed to language in the ADA which prohibits disability discrimination in the workplace regarding “terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” Because Title VII, which has very similar language, allows employees to bring hostile work environment claims based on other forms of discrimination, the 2nd Circuit couldn’t see why the ADA should work any differently for disabled workers.

This is just one federal circuit — others may view the issue differently. But it’s still a very good idea to
review your own workplace policies with an attorney.

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