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Employee Can Sue Church-Affiliated Organization for Disability Discrimination

Case demonstrates how churches may be subject to federal or state laws banning discrimination based on disability.

Key Point 8-14.01. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 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 Maryland refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former employee of a church-affiliated children’s home who claimed discrimination based on disability.

Background

A woman (the plaintiff) was employed by a church-affiliated group home for children (the defendant). Her duties included providing medications, meals, emotional support, and transportation to children residing in the group home. Her “transportation role consisted of ‘driv[ing] residents’ . . . to appointments, including medical and social visits, ‘as needed.’”

Employer sued for violating the ADA and state law

In November 2018, the plaintiff injured her leg in a car accident that occurred while she was transporting a child, “necessitating emergency surgery and a ten-day hospital stay.”

The court stated:

[The plaintiff] alleges that she spent the next several months “undergoing intensive outpatient physical therapy,” and throughout this time, she was unable to “drive, walk or work.” . . . In late January 2019, [her] surgeon allegedly informed her that she would be able to return to work and perform her job with “light duty restrictions.”

In March 2019, an employee of the defendant’s human resources department advised “that her employment would be terminated on March 8, 2019 if she did not provide a ‘return to work letter from her doctors stating that she was released for full duty.’”

The court continued:

On March 8, [the plaintiff’s] doctor allegedly declared that she could return to work, provided that she did not “drive for more than one hour during a four-hour period,” lift heavy weights, bend, or stoop. [The plaintiff claimed] that her doctor “was optimistic that he would be able to significantly reduce her restrictions within the following six weeks.” [She] allegedly believed that her doctor’s restrictions would not impede her work performance . . . as she “rarely, if ever, drove more than one hour in any four-hour period, and she rarely, if ever, lifted more than twenty pounds.” . . .

On March 11, 2019, however, [the human resources department] allegedly informed [the plaintiff] that, based on her doctor’s recommendations, “she needed to immediately submit her written resignation from her position.” [The plaintiff] responded that she would not resign, as “she was fully able to work with minor accommodations.”

Her employment was terminated. She sued the defendant for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and a state nondiscrimination law.

As a result of the termination of her employment, the plaintiff experienced “lost wages and benefits, as well as emotional distress, including extreme embarrassment and humiliation, anxiety, crying spells, stress and tension headaches, loss of appetite, depression, diminished self-esteem, and loss of sleep.”

The defendant seeks dismissal

The defendant asked the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit.

The court noted:

To bring suit under the ADA, a plaintiff must be a “qualified individual,” which is “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” . . . The ADA defines “reasonable accommodation” to include “making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,” “job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules,” and “reassignment to a vacant position,” among other potential accommodations. . . . When an employee informs her employer that she seeks an accommodation for a disability—“even if the employee fails to identify a specific, reasonable accommodation”—the employer then has a “good-faith duty ‘to engage [with his or her employee] in an interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation.’” . . .

Federal ADA regulations define “essential functions” as “the fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with a disability holds or desires,” as opposed to any “marginal functions of the position.” . . . A job’s “essential functions” can be ascertained from various factors, including the “employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential,” “[w]ritten job descriptions,” “[t]he amount of time spent on the job performing the function,” and “[t]he current work experience of those in similar jobs.”

The court noted further:

In order to bring a claim of disability discrimination, a plaintiff must show “(1) that she has a disability, (2) that she is a ‘qualified individual’ for the employment in question, and (3) that her employer discharged her (or took other adverse employment action) because of her disability” (italics added for emphasis).

The court also said:

[T]o establish a failure-to-accommodate claim, the plaintiff must show “(1) that she had a disability within the meaning of the [ADA]; (2) that her employer had notice of the disability; (3) that she could perform the essential functions of her job with a reasonable accommodation; and (4) that her employer declined to make such an accommodation” (italics added for emphasis).

The defendant insisted that “(1) [the plaintiff] was not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA, and (2) [the defendant] provided [her] with a reasonable accommodation in the form of an unpaid leave of absence for several months leading up to her termination.”

The court’s decision

The court declined to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit on the ground that, whether she could perform the essential functions of the job, and whether the defendant offered her a reasonable accommodation, were both questions of fact to be decided by the jury.

What this means for churches

This case illustrates that a church may be liable for violating state and federal nondiscrimination laws, both by terminating an employee because of a disability and for refusing to assist disabled employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs by offering reasonable workplace accommodations.

Note that few churches are subject to the federal ADA because it requires a minimum of 15 employees. However, most states have enacted their own employment discrimination laws banning discrimination based on disability, and these laws generally apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees. O’Reilly v. Board of Child Care (D.Md. 2020).

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Posted:
  • August 9, 2021

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