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Hostile Work Environment Claims Recognized Under ADA In More Circuits

Historically, there has been some debate as to whether the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) encompasses hostile work environment claims. Some circuits have recognized them explicitly, and others have recognized them implicitly through Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). The Fourth Circuit (which includes South Carolina) was one of the first to rule on the issue, in 2001, and more circuits are joining in the same reasoning now.

Fourth Circuit Case: Fox v. General Motors

The case of Fox v. General Motors (2001) involved a General Motors (GM) worker with a back injury, which was in turn aggravated by his supervisors’ asking him to perform tasks that were medically contraindicated. Eventually, the pervasive harassment forced Fox to go on disability leave, after which he filed a lawsuit against GM alleging a hostile work environment and discrimination based on his disability. The district court ruled in Fox’s favor, awarding compensatory damages, lost overtime pay, and medical expenses. The Fourth Circuit upheld all but the overtime pay award.

The rationale that the Fox court used is instructive. The ADA’s language explicitly prohibits discrimination against a “qualified individual with a disability” with regard to hiring, advancement, firing, or any aspect of employment. Almost identical language exists in Title VII, which has already been held as prohibiting hostile work environment claims based on any of its protected grounds. These include race, gender, national origin, color, or religion. Thus, the Fourth Circuit rationalized that with so many similarities, the ADA’s language should be taken to permit hostile work environment claims as well.

Second Circuit Case: Fox v. Costco Wholesale Corporation

The most recent case on this issue was handed down in March 2019, in the Second Circuit, which covers Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. The case is Fox v Costco Wholesale Corporation (2019). In it, plaintiff Fox (not to be confused with the Fourth Circuit’s plaintiff) alleged a pattern of discrimination culminating in a hostile work environment, based on assumed characteristics of the plaintiff. He has Tourette’s Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and provided several instances of his coworkers denying him benefits or insulting him directly because of his disabilities.

The Second Circuit explicitly states in the Costco opinion that it is “persuaded by [its] sister Circuits” and holds that hostile work environment claims are “cognizable” under the ADA. That is, they can be brought under the ADA instead of under Title VII. It may not seem like much, but the ADA is specifically written to be as inclusive to claims of disability discrimination as possible. With the opportunity to bring more claims under an ADA heading, disabled people stand a higher chance of prevailing in court.

Can An Employment Discrimination Attorney Help You?

Hostile work environment claims can be difficult to prove, no matter what type of characteristic it may be based on. If you suspect that you are dealing with a hostile work environment based on your disability, or on any protected characteristic, contacting a dedicated employment discrimination lawyer is your first step. Attorney A. Christopher Potts is happy to help you with your case. Contact Hitchcock & Potts today to schedule an appointment.

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