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Supreme Court reinforces anti-discrimination law’s ministerial exemption

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court upheld religious elementary schools’ ability to otherwise-discriminate against teachers under the “ministerial” exemption. Title VII, the ADEA and other anti-discrimination laws recognize a ministerial exemption, consistent with the First Amendment, that permits a synagogue, for example, to require that its rabbi actually be Jewish and that she adhere faithfully to the synagogue’s interpretation of Judaism.

In this case two teachers sued for wrongful discharge. One alleged age discrimination, the other alleged disability discrimination. The schools responded that it need not prove the real reason for their discharges because neither were protected under either the age or disability discrimination laws, because both fell under the ministerial exemption. Neither teacher was a “minister” in the sense of being ordained, having the title of a minister, or having any religious education or formal training. However, both taught courses that included religion. Both had been instructed when hired and again during their employment that their individual faith and morals were essential components of their jobs performance. Both prayed with their students as part of their jobs. The majority of the Court held all of that was sufficient for both to fall within the ministerial exemption.

There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility. As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith. And not only were they obligated to provide instruction about the Catholic faith, but they were also expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with the faith. They prayed with their students, attended Mass with the students, and prepared the children for their participation in other religious activities. …. Their titles did not include the term “minister,” and they had less formal religious training, but their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same. And both their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church, and the schools’ definition and explanation of their roles is important. In a country with the religious diversity of the United States, judges cannot be expected to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion in question is important.

Source: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, case no. 19-267 (7/8/2020).

EEOC confirms coronavirus antibody testing not permitted as part of return-to-workplace program, although active-virus testing may be permitted

The EEOC updated its FAQ guidance with Q&A no. A7, advising that an employer may not require coronavirus antibody testing (which is the blood test done to see if the person’s blood suggests they were previously exposed to the virus sufficient to create antibodies) as part of a company’s return-to-workplace program. However the EEOC advised (1) this may change as the science develops and (2) an employer may be able to require active virus testing (which is commonly done with a nasal swab) if such testing is uniformly required and “job-related consistent with business necessity.”

A.7.  CDC said in its Interim Guidelines that antibody test results “should not be used to make decisions about returning persons to the workplace.” In light of this CDC guidance, under the ADA may an employer require antibody testing before permitting employees to re-enter the workplace? (6/17/20)

No. An antibody test constitutes a medical examination under the ADA. In light of CDC’s Interim Guidelines that antibody test results “should not be used to make decisions about returning persons to the workplace,” an antibody test at this time does not meet the ADA’s “job related and consistent with business necessity” standard for medical examinations or inquiries for current employees. Therefore, requiring antibody testing before allowing employees to re-enter the workplace is not allowed under the ADA.  Please note that an antibody test is different from a test to determine if someone has an active case of COVID-19 (i.e., a viral test).  The EEOC has already stated that COVID-19 viral tests are permissible under the ADA.

The EEOC will continue to closely monitor CDC’s recommendations, and could update this discussion in response to changes in CDC’s recommendations.

EEOC publishes YouTube webinar on ADA, Rehabilitation Act and coronavirus

The EEOC published a short 42-minute YouTube video on the ADA, Rehabilitation Act and coronavirus.  The webinar fleshes out the EEOC’s recent coronavirus guidance and identifies certain questions that it believes it is currently unable to answer, including the following:

  • Whether coronavirus (COVID-19) is or could be a disability protected by the ADA?

Questions addressed include, in addition to those raised in the above guidance:

  • Whether an employer can ask an employee if his/her family has tested positive for coronavirus? Here, the EEOC believes that question is too narrow, because it is limited to questions about the employee’s family and as such the EEOC says it believes the question might implicate the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA); therefore, the EEOC urges employers instead to ask if the employee has had any such contact with anyone whom he/she knows to have tested positive.
  • Whether an employer, when disclosing that someone has tested positive, can disclose that person’s identity? The EEOC repeats its position in its above guidance’s instruction that employers, upon learning of a positive coronavirus test result, have some ability to disclose the same within a true need-to-know basis, and that it may be able to disclose to co-workers that someone has tested positive, but it repeats the employer should not generally report the person’s identity. That is true, the EEOC says, even where coworkers may be guessing or attempting to guess at the person’s identity. It gives as an example that the company may report that a person is teleworking without telling his coworker’s that the reason for his absence from the workplace is a positive test result. Likewise the EEOC addresses the issue where an employer may be faced with a concern that disclosing something as general as “someone at this location” or “someone on the 4th floor” has tested positive, is not sufficient information for concerned coworkers; here too, the EEOC restates its position that, even in that situation, the employer should not disclose the person’s identity. 
  • Whether allowing workers to telework during the coronavirus crisis may be later used by a disabled worker requesting the right to telework after the coronavirus crisis? The EEOC answers flatly, no, the fact that an employer allows teleworking during this coronavirus crisis cannot be used as evidence that teleworking might be a reasonable accommodation outside the coronavirus crisis. However in an unhelpful muddling of its answer, the EEOC added that it “could” be somehow relevant to showing that telework was in general feasible at least in some circumstances, theoretically.

The EEOC says that, while teleworking, HR professionals and others with a need-to-know medical information must store information, even at home, in a confidential manner, including not leaving notes where they can be seen. In a frankly absurd moment, the EEOC actually recommends HR professionals consider writing their notes while teleworking “in code.”

The EEOC noted that, during the coronavirus crisis, employers may be having difficulty obtaining doctor’s notes related to ADA accommodation requests and suggests that employers consider whether other documentation might suffice — arguably at least until a doctor’s note becomes available — such as a “health insurance record” or “a prescription.”

While not particularly robust or helpful on some of those difficult questions — and adding to the confusion on some questions — the webinar is nonetheless recommended for HR professionals to review as soon as possible.

Expert testimony not required to prove a “disability,” some of the times

The Tenth Circuit held that a plaintiff doesn’t always need to have a medical expert to confirm the plaintiff’s medical condition rises to the level of a “disability” protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When is a medical expert required? “(W)]here injuries complained of are of such character as to require skilled and professional persons to determine the cause and extent thereof,” and that question needs to be asked by each court in each individual case. This seemingly circular standard — expert medical testimony is required when it is necessary to understand the medical condition — was somewhat clarified by the Tenth Circuit when the Court contrasted such cases, at least, against those where the disability is “obvious.”

In short, the Tenth Circuit’s decision makes clear that expert medical testimony is likely always helpful to a plaintiff, might sometimes be required but isn’t always, and no plaintiff, or defendant, will know until the trial court, after undertaking a case-by-case analysis decides in any given case.

Source: Tesone v. Empire Marketing Strategies, case no. 19-1026 (10th Cir. 11/8/19).

Transfer to new supervisor held not a “reasonable accommodation”

What if a disabled employee’s preferred accommodation is to be transferred to a new supervisor? In a recent Pennyslvania case, the Third Circuit held that an employer was within its rights to deny such a request as it would not have been a “reasonable accommodation” required under the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act).

The Third Circuit observed that the employer had met its obligation to engage in the ADA’s required “interactive process” by exploring the disabled worker’s purported need for accommodation. The company had “met with her, considered her requests, and offered several accommodations, including a part-time work schedule.” The worker had, in turn, rejected all efforts to reach an accommodation. The Court observed that she was simply “unwilling to agree to any accommodation that included continued supervision by” her supervisor. The Court rejected her request for a new supervisor, holding it was not required by the ADA, and noting further that courts are not authorized by the ADA to restructure the terms of employment.

Source: Sessoms v. Univ. of Penn., case no. 17-2369 (3rd Cir. 6/20/18).

Tenth Circuit reaffirms indefinite leave request is not a reasonable accommodation

The Tenth Circuit recently reaffirmed that a request for indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Although the plaintiff provided some information about her need for leave, she failed to provide any sense of the anticipated duration of her disability. Instead she “informed her supervisor at Kelly on a Monday morning that she planned ‘not to come to work this week at all’ and indicated she would need additional time off for ‘some appointments and tests’ and for ‘five times of radiation.’” The Tenth Circuit held that was insufficient.

The accommodation Plaintiff requested would have required GE either to go without someone working at the receptionist position it had contracted with Kelly to staff (requiring others at GE to take over Plaintiff’s duties at the receptionist desk while still carrying out their own job duties), or to accept a supertemporary employee or employees who would fill in for Plaintiff for the week she wanted off and for whichever other additional times she needed to take off for tests, appointments, “times of radiation,” and other cancer-related reasons, while letting Plaintiff return to take over her temporary job position whenever she was free and felt up to attending work.

The case is a good reminder to employers of the value (and legal requirement under the ADA) of the interactive process. By communicating with the plaintiff and hearing her full request, the employer was able to gauge the legal reasonableness of her request under the ADA and determine it to be insufficient.

Source: Punt v. Kelly Services

Tenth Circuit reaffirms disability and accommodation requirements

The Tenth Circuit reaffirmed the requirements an employer faces when a less than clear employee presents with a potential disability. In this case, the plaintiff had a pacemaker but otherwise no restrictions and needed no accommodations at work. He required a battery replacement to the pacemaker, and the procedure left him with an infection. He took FMLA leave then, while on leave, informed his employer he wouldn’t be able to return for an additional week after his FMLA leave expired.

He did not say he had a disability, but the Tenth Circuit held that the company knew enough to know that he did. The Tenth Circuit rejected the argument that, with his pacemaker, the plaintiff had no restrictions. The court noted that established ADA law requires courts to consider the plaintiff’s condition without the benefit of ameliorative treatments, like a pacemaker (medication, eyeglasses, etc.). But for the pacemaker, the court held that the company knew enough to know the plaintiff’s condition would have beenbad enough to constitute a protected disability.

With regard to the fact that he was entitled to no more FMLA leave, and with regard to the fact that he never actually asked for extra leave at the end of his FMLA leave, the Tenth Circuit held he’d effectively put the company on notice that it should have engaged in the ADA-required interactive process while he was on his FMLA leave. Even though he didn’t ask for extra leave, the company should have discussed with him whether his disability required a reasonable accommodation, and if it had done so, one potentially reasonable accommodation would have been an additional unpaid week’s leave.

Indeed, the facts of the case began even earlier with an OSHA investigation that the plaintiff maintained he’d been suspected of starting by anonymously complaining to OSHA. He sued for that as well, and the Tenth Circuit held that the foregoing, and other alleged conduct, could have been part of a claim for OSHA retaliation as well (under a Kansas law that recognizes such claims as public policy violations). Therefore, he was allowed to proceed on both his ADA and wrongful discharge claims.

The case is a good illustration to employers of the need to fully consider, in consultation with legal counsel, known information, even when a plaintiff seems otherwise fine, only suffers what seems to be a temporary setback and is himself less than clear about what he needs from the company.

Source: Yinger v. Postal Presort Inc., — F.3d —, case no. Court of Appeals, case no. No. 16-3239 (10th Cir. 6/8/17)

Beware asking one question too many

When the plaintiff applied for short-term disability benefits, he told the insurance company that he suffered from stress, anxiety and an addiction to prescribed narcotics. He was granted the requested medical leave of absence, took the leave, returned to work, received a write-up and resigned. He sued his employer for a number of alleged violations.

First, he claimed he’d been subjected to a hostile work environment because of his alleged disability. He said the hostile work environment included being “sarcastically belittled” and called “a baby.” The Court dismissed the claim, holding his allegations were not severe enough to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even if true.

Second, he claimed he’d been discriminated against because he’d been “regarded as” disabled when the company had allegedly required him to pass a drug test and to remain in the drug testing program for five years. The Court dismissed that claim as well, noting that he was the one who had asked for leave due to substance abuse and that the evidence established the employer treated others who did the same in the same way.

Finally, he argued that the company had wrongfully required him to disclose all legally prescribed medications he was using. Here, the Court held, if true, the employer had gone too far. The ADA strictly limits companies’ ability to request medical information, and the Court remanded the case for the lower court to determine what had actually happened. The Court noted that the f company could still provide it complied with the ADA’s rules. In short, the employer will have to prove it had a “business necessity” for the request and that the request was job-related given the plaintiff’s individual duties.

Employers are reminded to consult with experienced counsel when confronted with difficult cases involving leaves, disabilities, addiction and safety concerns.

The case was Williams v. FedEx Corporate Services, — F.3d — (10th Cir. 2/24/17).