Although we would like to believe that we live in a more enlightened era, disability rights activists will tell you that the repugnant practice of mocking people with disabilities persists, and not just among schoolyard bullies. But does the law prohibit such behavior, especially if it occurs in the workplace? Or, to ask the question another way, does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit harassment based on a disability?
Yes, it does, according to a recent decision by a federal appeals court in Illinois, Ford v. Marion County (IL) Sheriff’s Office, No. 18-3217 (7th Cir. 2019).
The plaintiff, Brigid Ford, was a deputy sheriff until she suffered a serious hand injury during an on-duty car crash. After allowing plaintiff to work as a deputy in a light duty capacity for about a year, the Sheriff’s Office told her she would have to transfer to a permanent position suitable to her physical limitations or be terminated. She accepted a position as a civilian jail clerk but later sued the Sheriff’s Office, alleging, among other things, that co-workers harassed her because she was disabled.
At trial, to support the harassment allegation, the plaintiff pointed to three years of clashes with co-workers at the county jail. The plaintiff claimed that one co-worker, CL, behaved like an unhelpful, insensitive bully towards her, mocking her workstation accommodations, adjusting her chair into uncomfortable positions, and disrupting work with loud conversations. The plaintiff claims that another co-worker, EW, left work early and improperly took documents home. After the plaintiff made complaints about CL and EW, the Sheriff’s Office transferred both of them away from the office where the plaintiff worked. Another co-worker, VH, was then transferred into the office. The plaintiff immediately began to have conflicts with VH too, and following an investigation, the Sheriff’s Office transferred VH as well.
The trial court granted pre-trial summary judgment to the Sheriff’s Office on some claims and others were tried to a jury, which found for the Sheriff’s Office and against the plaintiff. The plaintiff appealed.
Before turning to the merits of the plaintiff’s appeal, the Court of Appeals first considered the threshold question of whether the ADA allows for a hostile work environment harassment claim. Surveying decisions from other federal appeals courts around the United States the court concluded that the ADA does allow such claims.
Turning next to the merits of the plaintiff’s hostile environment claim, the court found that, based on the evidence, the jury reasonably concluded that the plaintiff was not harassed by CL or EW because of her disability. Although there was evidence of unkind behavior by CL and EW, the jury stated on a “special verdict form” that the “negative comments” were not related to the plaintiff’s disability. The court also noted that the Sheriff’s Office promptly transferred CL and EW after the plaintiff complained about them, noting, “removing alleged harassers permanently, as the Sheriff’s Office did …, can bring an end to the unlawful employment practice.”
The court next addressed the alleged harassment by VH, which the plaintiff said happened after CL and EW were transferred. The court concluded that the trial judge properly granted summary judgment to the Sheriff’s Office on this aspect of the plaintiff’s claim because, even assuming everything the plaintiff said about VH was true, the conduct described amounted to three supposedly insensitive comments, over a period of a year and a half, which the court found was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive working environment. The court noted that, “offhand comments, isolated incidents, and simple teasing” do not necessarily equal unlawful harassment. The court also observed that the Sheriff’s Office transferred VH, too, after the plaintiff complained.
What are the practical lessons learned from Ford v. Marion County Sheriff’s Office?
Harassment because of a disability is illegal, not to mention bad for workplace culture. Make sure your anti-harassment policy explicitly prohibits disability harassment.
Investigate claims of harassment promptly, thoroughly and fairly, and take action if warranted by the evidence — in this case, the Sheriff’s Office was bolstered both pre-trial and at trial by the fact that it investigated the plaintiff’s harassment complaints and took action to address them. This case is a textbook example of how investigating complaints and taking remedial action helps everyone in the workplace and strengthens the employer’s position in litigation.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana) continues to hold that minor incidents of workplace teasing do not rise to the level of unlawful hostile environment harassment. Nevertheless, since we all care deeply about employee morale, engagement, recruitment, and retention, you should strive to create a workplace where cruelty does not occur and to act decisively to stop it if it does occur.