Monday, September 28, 2015

Does an employee have to be “disabled” to claim retaliation under the ADA?

The ADA protects employees with disabilities? But what about its anti-retaliation provision? Does an employee have to be “disabled” under the ADA for the statute to protect that employee from retaliation? According to Hurtt v. International Services, Inc. (6th Cir. 9/14/15), the answer is no.

Hurtt worked at ISI as a senior business analyst, earning a yearly draw plus a percentage commission on sales. The day after he requested FMLA-leave for (job-related) anxiety and depression, ISI terminated his draw and switched him a commission-only comp plan. He sued, claiming, among other things retaliation for requesting various accommodations for his disability, including requests for a leave of absence and for a reduced work schedule.

The 6th Circuit reversed the trial court’s dismissal of Hurtt’s retaliation claim, holding that the mere act of requesting an accommodation is sufficient to raise the specter of retaliation, regardless of whether the employee is actually “disabled”:

We have held that requests for accommodation are protected acts…. Hurtt argues that he engaged in protected activity when he requested a reasonable accommodation and when he took FMLA leave…. But, the pertinent inquiry here is not whether Hurtt proved he had a disability under the ADA, or whether ISI had specific knowledge of Hurtt’s alleged disability, but rather, whether Hurtt showed a good-faith request for reasonable accommodations.

The takeaway here is more common sense than law. If Title VII can protect a white guy from retaliation when he complains that his black co-worker is being mistreated, the ADA certainly should protect an employee requesting a reasonable accommodation, whether or not a court determines after the fact that he is, or is not, legally “disabled”. Employees who request accommodations should always be treated with care; otherwise you risk stepping on a retaliation landmine.