The ADA and Church Hiring

A church may be liable for discriminatory termination, but not for failing to implement reasonable accommodations since it was the plaintiff’s responsibility to suggest accommodations which he failed to do.

Key point 8-14.1.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers with at least 15 employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in any employment decision against a qualified individual with a disability who is able, with or without reasonable accommodation from the employer, to perform the essential functions of the job. Accommodations that impose an undue hardship upon an employer are not required. Religious organizations may give preference to nondisabled members of their faith over disabled persons who are members of a different faith.

A federal court in Georgia ruled that a church may have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by dismissing a custodian suffering from schizophrenia, but it could not be liable for failing to reasonably accommodate the custodian's disability since the custodian never suggested reasonable accommodations for the church to try.

A church hired a man (the "plaintiff") as a maintenance worker. He was responsible for cleaning and maintaining the church sanctuary and other areas. He performed his duties well and often was complimented by church members for his good work. He suffered from schizophrenia, a condition characterized by severe anxiety, depression, fear, nightmares, seizures, delusions, hallucinations, difficulty interacting with people, trouble thinking, and insomnia. He controls his symptoms by taking medication and working, but his ability to work is limited to 8 hours per day for 40 hours per week.

The plaintiff further claimed that he was verbally abused by his supervisor when he refused to sign a disciplinary notice regarding offenses and failures he did not commit. The supervisor mentioned plaintiff's mental illness and suggested that he was "off his medications." A few weeks later the plaintiff had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized.In 2012, the church increased his duties to include cleaning the church's classrooms despite knowing his mental limitations. Plaintiff was unable to perform the extra duties to the required standards, which he alleged even people without a mental illness would have been incapable of meeting. He alleged that the church assigned him this work because it knew he would fail and then could use his failure as a pretext to dismiss him due to his disability. In fact, at least three people now perform the job duties plaintiff had been assigned to perform alone.

The church terminated the plaintiff's employment, and he later sued the church for: (1) discriminatory discharge in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and a similar state law; (2) failure to make a reasonable accommodation; and (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress. The church asked the court to dismiss all claims.

The court noted that the ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against "a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." To establish a "prima facie case" of disability discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that "(1) he is disabled; (2) he was a 'qualified individual' at the relevant time, meaning he could perform the essential functions of the job in question with or without reasonable accommodations; and (3) he was discriminated against because of his disability." Unlawful discrimination also includes the failure to provide "reasonable accommodations" for the disability unless doing so would impose undue hardship on the employer.

The church argued that the plaintiff's ADA claims failed for three reasons: (1) he was not a qualified individual because he was unable to perform his duties to the required standards; (2) he failed to identify a reasonable accommodation that would have enabled him to perform his duties to the required standard; and (3) there was no reasonable accommodation for plaintiff's schizophrenia.

The court noted that the plaintiff was capable of working 8 hours a day for 40 hours per week, and he performed his duties well for a number of years before being terminated. Even though he acknowledged that he was unable to perform the increased amount of work asked of him, he also "alleged facts demonstrating that the church increased his workload to create a pretext for discriminatory discharge. In that regard, he has sufficiently alleged … that he is a qualified individual capable of performing the essential functions of his job without an accommodation." As a result, the court denied the church's request to dismiss the discriminatory discharge claim.

However, the court noted that a plaintiff in an ADA claim "bears the burden of identifying an accommodation, and of demonstrating that the accommodation allows him to perform the job's essential functions." In general, "it is the responsibility of the individual with a disability to inform the employer that an accommodation is needed. Once an individual with a disability has requested provision of a reasonable accommodation, the employer must make a reasonable effort to determine the appropriate accommodation." The plaintiff never requested an accommodation before he was terminated, stating only that "the church made no effort to accommodate [his] mental illness and did not even consider or discuss with him ways to accommodate his mental disability… . Because plaintiff fails to allege that he requested an accommodation, his ADA discrimination claim based on a failure to accommodate is dismissed."

The court also dismissed the plaintiff's disability claim under state law, since the statute's definition of disability excluded schizophrenia.

The plaintiff alleged that the church was liable on the basis of intentional infliction of emotional distress for terminating him as a result of his inability to perform the extra work assigned to him. The court dismissed this claim as well, noting that to establish a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must prove that: "(1) the conduct giving rise to the claim was intentional or reckless; (2) the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) the conduct caused emotional distress; and (4) the emotional distress was severe. The defendant's conduct "must be so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community." The court concluded that the church's conduct did not meet this strict standard.

What this means for churches

This case illustrates that an employer may be liable for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act both by terminating an employee because of a disability, and for refusing to assist disabled employees to perform the essential functions of their job by offering reasonable workplace accommodations. The court concluded that the church may be liable for discriminatory termination, but not for failing to implement reasonable accommodations since it was the plaintiff's responsibility to suggest accommodations which he failed to do. Puckett v. Board of Trustees, 2014 WL 1572748 (N.D. Ga. 2014).

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