U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Rule on Website Accessibility Issue

In a blog post from February of this year, we discussed the case of Robles v. Domino’s Pizzain which a blind man sued Domino’s in 2016 for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) shutterstock_pizzaafter he was unable to order food from the pizza chain’s website using screen reading technology because the website lacked sufficient software compatibility capabilities.  Because the ADA guarantees people with a disability “full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services … of any place of public accommodations,” the plaintiff claimed that he had been the victim of unlawful disability discrimination.  Domino’s, on the other hand, argued that while the ADA applies to its brick-and-mortar locations, it does not apply to its website because a website is not defined in the ADA as a place of public accommodation.

In its decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the plaintiff, finding that the ADA protects not just restaurants, hotels, stores, and other physical “brick and mortar” locations, but also the “services of a public accommodation,” notably websites and apps.  The Court then found that Domino’s violated Title III of the ADA because its website’s incompatibility with screen reader software impeded access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises.  Notably, this decision was the first by any U.S. Court of Appeals Continue reading

On the Basis of Personal Appearance

As you know, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) is one of the principal federal statutes prohibiting employment discrimination.  It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex (including gender and pregnancy).  shutterstock_Washington DCOther federal statutes that prohibit employment discrimination include Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).  But, employers must also be aware of state and local laws that extend protection beyond these federally protected classes.  In the District of Columbia, for example, it is a violation of the law to discriminate on the basis of personal appearance, a category of protected class that has caused employers significant confusion with respect to what kinds of dress and grooming policies they may lawfully enforce.  So what does personal appearance discrimination mean?  And what should employers do to minimize their legal risk and ensure they do not run afoul of such laws?

Under the D.C. Human Rights Act (DCHRA), personal appearance is one of 20 protected traits for people that live, visit or work in D.C.  Personal appearance is defined as the outward appearance of any person, irrespective of sex, with regard to bodily condition or characteristics, manner or style of dress, and manner or style of personal grooming, including, but not limited to, hair style and beards.  To flesh this out, the D.C. Office of Human Rights, which administers Continue reading

Eleventh Circuit Announces New “Similarly Situated” Standard for Workplace Discrimination Claims

In employment discrimination cases, employees often seek to prove their claims by presenting indirect evidence of discrimination.  Employees will seek to present evidence that they were treated differently than similarly situated employees outside of their protected class.  On March 21, 2019, the Eleventh Circuit adopted a new test for analyzing these “comparators” by issuing its decision in Lewis v. City of Union City, Ga..  In doing so, the Court rejected its previous standards for analyzing comparators.  shutterstock_judge rulingBefore Lewis, courts in the Eleventh Circuit evaluated “similarly situated” comparators under either the “nearly identical” or “same or similar” standard, and sometimes even used both standards simultaneously.  The fact that two standards had emerged, and at times, were even used together, without any clear guidance on their proper use, caused the Court to call the entire situation “a mess.”  Accordingly, in an effort to clean up and clarify the proper standard for comparator evidence, a full panel of the Court took on Lewis so that it could address whether “similarly situated” should be interpreted as “same or similar,” “nearly identical,” or something else.  Ultimately, the Court decided to depart from its previous standards, and went with something else.  Now, in order to prove intentional discrimination by indirect evidence, a plaintiff must show that employees “similarly situated in all material aspects” received preferential treatment.  The Court also reiterated that this burden remains with the plaintiff as part of plaintiff’s prima facie case.  So, what was the case about, and what does it mean for employers?

After the announcement of a new policy requiring all police officers to carry Tasers and receive a five-second shock, Jacqueline Lewis, an African-American detective with the Union City Police Department in Union City, Georgia, was scheduled to receive such training.  She had also been scheduled to receive pepper spray training.  But, before receiving either of these, Ms. Lewis submitted a doctor’s note Continue reading

Good Faith Goes a Long Way: The Benefits of Fully Engaging in the Interactive Process Mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act

On Monday, March 25, 2019, I had the privilege to co-present on reasonable accommodations and the interactive process under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) at the HR in Hospitality Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of the issues Picture1covered during our presentation involved the fact that the ADA does not require that employers provide the specific accommodation requested by an employee as long as the employer offers a reasonable accommodation to the employee who made the request.  While employers can use their business judgment when deciding how best to reasonably accommodate an employee, a settlement recently announced by the EEOC underscores that many employers would be well-advised to develop internal procedures or guidelines to help ensure that those involved in the accommodation process understand what is expected of them and the company when responding to accommodation requests.   According to a lawsuit filed by EEOC in Minnesota, a Bath and Body Works store failed to reasonably accommodation a sales associate with type-1 diabetes suffering retinopathy who asked that a larger monitor screen be placed at the cash register.  Instead, a store manager purchased what the EEOC described as “a cheap, hand-held magnifying glass” to be used by the sales associate when working the register.

Under a consent decree settling the suit (EEOC v. Bath and Body Works), Bath and Body Works agreed to pay Continue reading

N.J. Court Opens Door for Employees to File Disability Discrimination Claims for Adverse Employment Actions Related to Medical Marijuana Use

Several states have taken steps toward legalizing marijuana in some form.  However, these laws differ in many respects and raise interesting questions for employers, especially as they relate to off-duty conduct.

While some states such as Arizona, Delaware, and Minnesota provide specific statutory protections for employees that have a valid prescription for medical marijuana, there has been an increase in litigation under state disability discrimination laws for failure to accommodate an employee’s use of marijuana to treat a disability. The lingering question remains whether an employer’s decision to take an adverse action against an employee for using medical marijuana outside the workplace is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) or a state’s disability Continue reading

Court Ruling Further Clarifies ADA Website Accessibility Obligations

Over the past several years, we have written extensively about employers’ obligations to make their websites accessible for individuals with visual, hearing and physical impairments.  In the past, we have counseled employers who are considered a “place of public accommodation” (such as a hotel, restaurant, place of recreation, doctor’s office, etc.) to at the very least do some due diligence to determine whether their websites are accessible for disabled users, so that those individuals can use and navigate those websites and/or purchase goods sold onWebsite Accessibility Picture the websites.  (For more information about the developing law on this issue, check out our prior posts here and here.)  Now, for the first time, a U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled on this issue and has confirmed that so long as there is a “nexus” between a company’s website and a physical location (which is typically the case), a company must make its website accessible or risk significant legal exposure for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

(As a reminder, although not the subject of this blog post, we have also written about a second consideration here regarding website accessibility that applies only to hotels and other places of lodging and currently is the subject of a tremendous amount of litigation.  Specifically, the implementing regulations of Title III of the ADA require a hotel’s website to provide information regarding various accessibility features at its property, so that a mobility impaired individual can determine whether he or she can navigate the public areas and guestrooms at the property.).

Continue reading

Have Faith: 4.9 Million Dollar Settlement Underscores Importance of Accommodating Religious Beliefs During Hiring Process

What happens when the religious beliefs of an applicant conflict with your grooming and appearance policy?  What if the applicant is seeking a public-facing position in which they will be the first (and only) representative of your organization with whom most members of the public interact?  shutterstock_EEOCWhile some employers may believe that “image is everything” when it comes to the appearance of their public-facing employees, a 4.9 million-dollar settlement of a religious discrimination lawsuit announced recently by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) serves as a stark reminder to employers that even your most straightforward policies may need to be modified in certain situations.  As detailed in our June 7, 2018 blog post, the EEOC has been aggressively making good on the promise made in the agency’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017 – 2021 to focus on “class-based recruitment and hiring practices” that discriminate against people with disabilities by filing a series of lawsuits accusing employers of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by inquiring about prior medical histories, subjecting applicants to physical capacity tests and refusing to hire individuals who disclosed certain conditions.  The agency’s Strategic Enforcement Plan similarly committed to rooting out religious barriers to employment.  This is important because while many employers readily understand the need to reasonably accommodate disabled applicants and employees, it seems that some employers fail to grasp that they may also have to accommodate religious beliefs and practices of applicants and employees.

What the Law Requires

Title VII requires that employers, once informed that a religious accommodation is needed, accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.  If an employer’s dress and grooming policy conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the EEOC expects Continue reading