In a recent decision, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals—which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—addressed claims brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by an employee who had a noticeable stutter. The employee alleged his employers failed to accommodate his disability and subjected him to a hostile work environment.
However, the court rejected his claims, finding the employers didn’t have sufficient knowledge of his disability and he didn’t show that either employer failed to take prompt remedial action to address the alleged harassment.
“Charlie” was employed by Talascend, a staffing agency that furnishes contract employees to clients. Talascend assigned Charlie to work at a facility owned by Jacobs Engineering Group in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was tasked with designing electrical and instrumentation systems for Jacobs.
Charlie claimed his coworkers harassed him because he stutters and the employers failed to accommodate him, in violation of the ADA. He said he complained to his supervisors about the harassment and the noise level while he worked at Jacobs. He asserted that both the harassment and the excessive noise caused him to experience severe anxiety.
Charlie contended that as a result of his workplace stress, he had a panic attack while he was driving and got into a car accident in February 2014. He didn’t return to work at Jacobs after the incident, but filed suit against Talascend and Jacobs, asserting claims under the ADA.
The district court granted summary judgment (dismissed the case without a trial) in favor of Talascend and Jacobs, finding they didn’t know about Charlie’s disability and he failed to provide sufficient evidence to establish a hostile work environment claim. Charlie appealed the dismissal of his case, and the 5th Circuit affirmed.
5th Circuit’s Decision
The ADA forbids a covered employer from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of a disability with regard to the terms, conditions, and privileges of his employment. Discrimination in this context includes the failure to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, unless the employer can show that the accommodations would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.
Under the ADA, a “disability” is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the individual’s major life activities. The court noted that “Where the disability, resulting limitations, and necessary reasonable accommodations are not open, obvious, and apparent to the employer, the initial burden rests primarily upon the employee to specifically identify the disability and resulting accommodations, and to suggest the reasonable accommodations.”
Although an employee isn’t required to utter any magic words, he must explain that the adjustment in working conditions or duties he is seeking is related to a medical condition.
In analyzing whether Talascend and Jacobs knew about Charlie’s disability, the court first acknowledged that his stutter is obvious and he had complained about noise at the workplace on several occasions. However, the court concluded that he was required to show that Talascend and Jacobs attributed his limitation—sensitivity to noise—to a physical or mental impairment. “In other words, they must have known that [he] sought a quieter work environment because of a medical condition,” said the court.
The only evidence showing that Talascend might have known about Charlie’s limitations was his testimony that he told the recruiter that his stuttering and anxiety problems “all go together” and that “at a previous job he was sensitive to noise.” The court concluded that those statements were too vague to show that he identified his sensitivity to noise as a limitation caused by his disability.
In analyzing whether Jacobs knew about Charlie’s limitations, the court noted that he had asked to be moved to a quieter area to decrease his stuttering and calm his nerves, and his “nervous system problems would stop causing his increase in stuttering.”
The court opined that based on those statements, it was reasonable to infer that Jacobs was on notice that noise aggravated Charlie’s anxiety, which in turn aggravated his stuttering. However, the court ruled that wasn’t enough to overcome the employer’s request for summary judgment.
According to the court, “A jury must be able to infer Jacobs’ knowledge of the limitations experienced by the employee as a result of his disability” (emphasis added). Importantly, the court recognized that “specificity in attributing a work limitation to a disability is particularly important.”
Because he didn’t tell Jacobs that his disability caused his noise sensitivity and a causal relationship wasn’t obvious, Charlie didn’t meet his burden of showing that the office noise aggravated his disability and gave rise to a workplace limitation the employer should have been aware of.
The court next turned to Charlie’s harassment claim. To establish a hostile work environment claim, an employee must show:
- He belongs to a protected group.
- He was subjected to unwelcome harassment.
- The harassment was based on his disability or disabilities.
- The harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of his employment.
- The employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action to remedy it.
To affect a term, condition, or privilege of employment, harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment. In determining whether a work environment is hostile, courts look to the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, whether it was physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it unreasonably interfered with the employee’s work performance. But simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless they’re extremely serious) don’t suffice to alter the terms and conditions of employment.
The 5th Circuit agreed with the district court that Charlie didn’t show that either employer failed to take prompt remedial action to address the alleged harassment. The court noted that “a hostile work environment claim fails . . . if the [employee] unreasonably failed to take advantage of corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”
Both Talascend’s and Jacobs’ handbooks direct employees who experience harassment to contact HR, and there was no evidence that Charlie complied with those policies. Accordingly, the court found that he unreasonably failed to take advantage of the corrective opportunities provided by Talascend and Jacobs. Summary judgment on his hostile work environment claims was therefore proper. Patton v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., 2017 WL 3014429 (5th Cir., 2017).
To defend against ADA claims, it is critical to not only maintain accurate job descriptions but to also ensure that your handbook is thorough. You should have a provision in your employee handbook that instructs employees to report any incidents of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment and identifies the proper managers to whom such complaints should be made.
Regardless of whether you have such a provision in your handbook, you are strongly encouraged to thoroughly investigate any complaints of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment. An investigation should include, at a minimum, gathering statements from supervisors or other employees who may have witnessed the alleged harassment or discrimination and, to the extent that any discipline is warranted, following company policies in administering it.