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Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

According to the NYC Commission on Human Rights Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Disability, approximately one million residents (11.2 percent of the population) of New York City live with a disability.  Fostering environments of inclusivity and accessibility allow people with disabilities to enter and remain in the workforce and meet their most basic and critical needs.  The New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”)—New York City’s local anti-discrimination statute—is one of the most broad and remedial in the country.  It must be construed “independently from similar or identical provisions of New York State or federal statutes,” such that “similarly worded provisions of federal and state civil rights laws [are] a floor below which the City’s Human Rights law cannot fall, rather than a ceiling above which the local law cannot rise.”  In addition, exemptions to the NYCHRL must be construed “narrowly in order to maximize deterrence of discriminatory conduct.”

As a result, the provisions of the NYCHRL that prohibit disability discrimination are generally broader than the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  An individual is considered disabled, within the meaning of the ADA, if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or has been regarded as having such an impairment.  Under the NYCHRL, however, a “disability” means “any physical, medical, mental or psychological impairment, or a history or record of such impairment.”  The NYCHRL definition of disability is “liberalized and expansive.”

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability 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.  A plaintiff bringing an ADA claim has two major hurdles to pass on their way to a trial: a motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment.

At the motion-to-dismiss stage, a plaintiff need only allege facts that provide “plausible support to the reduced requirements” of the prima facie case.  Thus, to survive a motion to dismiss, “what must be plausibly supported by facts alleged in the complaint is that the plaintiff is a member of a protected class, was qualified, suffered an adverse employment action, and has at least minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory intent.  At issue is whether Plaintiff alleges facts sufficient to demonstrate that (1) he is a member of the protected class, i.e., whether he suffers from a disability as defined by the ADA, (2) he was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job with or without a reasonable accommodation, and (3) there is a plausible inference he was terminated because of his disability.

A three-step approach is used to determine whether an individual has a disability under the ADA. Plaintiff must establish that (1) he suffers from a physical or mental impairment; (2) the impairment affects a “major life activity;” and (3) the impairment “substantially limits” that major life activity.  A major life activity is an activity that is “of central importance to daily life.”  The term “ ‘substantially limits’ ” is “construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA and is not meant to be a demanding standard,” such that “[a]n impairment need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, the individual from performing a major life activity in order to be considered substantially limiting.”  Furthermore, whether an individual’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity is a determination that “shall be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures,” such as medication or “learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications.”

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By Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

In Beaton v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Southern District of New York denied a motion filed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”) to dismiss Earl Beaton’s disability discrimination claims under the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), including wrongful termination, failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, and retaliation claims.  Beaton had appeared to be sleeping on the job because his schizophrenia medication caused his eyes to close.  The MTA immediately suspended and then terminated his employment, despite having knowledge of his disability.  Beaton maintained that “his disability was the cause of his termination.”

Beaton was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1985.  Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves.  Although schizophrenia is not as common as other mental disorders and the symptoms can be very disabling, it can be treated with the right medications. Beaton’s symptoms included depression, anxiety, paranoia, mental instability, auditory hallucinations, and the belief that other people can read his mind.  As a result, Beaton’s schizophrenia impairs his ability to work, think, communicate, sleep, learn, focus, concentrate, and remain awake.  Beaton received psychiatric care since his diagnosis and has been successful in treating his mental condition with antipsychotic medication.  Specifically, Beaton was prescribed Fluphenazine for the past ten years, which permitted him to maintain stable periods without schizophrenia symptoms.

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By Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On September 5, 2018, in Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co., the District Court of Connecticut held that, under the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (“PUMA”), employers are prohibited from refusing to hire a person because of the person’s status as a qualifying medical marijuana patient, which includes refusing to hire someone because they failed to pass a drug test for marijuana.  This case makes it clear that anyone who is prescribed marijuana or a marijuana derivative does not need to choose between taking their medication and losing an employment opportunity.

In Noffsinger, Plaintiff Katelin Noffsinger accepted a job offer from Defendant SSC Niantic Operating Company, LLC d/b/a Bride Brook Health & Rehabilitation Center (the “Center”).  The offer was contingent on drug testing, and Ms. Noffsinger told the Center that she was qualified under PUMA to use marijuana for medical purposes to treat her post-traumatic stress disorder, which she was diagnosed with in 2012 after being in a car accident, and related night terrors (marijuana generally prevents lucid or vivid dreams).  After her drug test came back positive for THC consistent with the use of marijuana, the Center rescinded its job offer.  The Center’s position was that it did not allow medical marijuana for its employees, so Ms. Noffsinger was disqualified for employment with them.

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The past six weeks of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation have marked one of the most monumental political events of Trump’s presidency and Supreme Court History. Over 20 million people watched live as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused a Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The hearing highlighted critical issues of political agenda, government policy, and gender discrimination.  Additionally, it compelled viewers to consider the deep-seated, long-term impact of sexual trauma and the importance of sexual violence in today’s political and social climate.

According to the United States Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Perpetrators of sexual abuse are not only physically abusive, but are verbally abusive, antagonistic, and emotionally manipulative. The topic of sexual violence in our society is multi-faceted and complex, rooted deeply in our historical and legal suppression of women. In examining these issues, cultural scientists often focus on the corrosive power of hyper-sexualization in media and  “rape culture,” a term coined by feminists in the late-70s that covers all “jokes, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery” that normalize sexual coercion. People promoting rape culture often regard the prominence of sexual assault as an “inevitable” facet of reality. The effects of over-sexualization and sexual commodification have been distinctly linked to mental conditions such as depression and eating disorders. Additionally, the hyper-sexualization of modern culture has enabled and permitted the ambiguity surrounding the definition of sexual abuse to continue.

Moreover, while there are 321,500 cases of rape and sexual assault reported annually in the U.S., this number is far less than the projected actual number, as victims are often too afraid to report their experiences. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, whose traumatic experience of sexual assault went unreported for decades, is a classic example of “the silent victim.”  The uniqueness of her case being made public allows us to understand more deeply how an “indelible” trauma like sexual assault can affect our relationships, well-being and sense of safety for years following the incident. The effects of sexual abuse have been linked to an enormity of physiological conditions such as PTSD, borderline personality disorder, substance abuse, suicide, insomnia, panic attacks, generalized anxiety, sexual dysfunction, reproductive disease, cancer, digestive issues, emotional instability, autoimmune dysfunction, diabetes, and heart disease. (New Scientist, Committee on Healthcare) Sexual trauma impacts not only victims, but families, communities, companies, economies, and the environment.  Financially, rape is the “costliest crime for victims in the United States,” racking up to $127 billion annually.  These costs include medical, mental health, social and emergency services; insurance; legal costs; and lost productivity, wages, and fringe benefits.

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While the workplace has considerably evolved within the last decades to more openly recognize the diverse needs of employees, there still remains a large stigma around workers’ mental wellbeing. Statistics reveal striking contrast between the ubiquity of mental health issues and how few people seek treatment. In the United States, one in five adults, or 43.8 million people, experience a mental malady within a year, yet the long-held stigma about mental health keeps more than 50 percent of workers from seeking employee-covered care to support their physiological wellness. (One Medical, 2017) Employees largely do not disclose mental health issues, reportedly, for fear of job loss, lack of promotion, eventual replacement or judgement from colleagues.  As a result, approximately $27 billion dollars are lost annually to mental health-related absences in the workplace. (Office Vibe, 2014)

According to experts like Mary Deacon, who heads one of Canada’s largest mental health initiatives, the corporate environment has suffered from creating an “artificial separation” between mental and physical health. (Concordia, 2013) Until now, it has been more acceptable within the professional environment to recognize employees with physical disabilities or illnesses. Deacon expresses, however, that raising awareness around mental health is now gaining as much traction as cancer and AIDS-awareness movements garnered in the last decades, and rightfully so.  With over 80 percent of people working more than 48 hours weekly and with 50 percent of workers reporting they experience extreme stress at work, places of business must consider how to address the topic of mental health on multiple levels. (Office Vibe, 2014)

Companies can support whole-person health through the design and management of their company culture, choice of health care policies and employee benefits. Team leaders can initiate conversations that foster and promote a healthy work place. Bringing the subject of mental wellness to light can be a useful tool for promoting a sense of security within the job environment for workers. Initiatives can be taken to bring in Employee Assistant Professionals to speak to employees about mental health resources and the effectiveness of getting support to ease stress. Leadership training can facilitate efficient communication within the workplace and can be a useful tool to support greater wellness at work and improve colleague and client relations.

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Jessica Ellis

On August 10, 2018, in Cotto, Jr. v. Ardagh Glass Packing, Inc., the United States District Court of New Jersey held that New Jersey law does not require private employers to waive drug tests as an accommodation for employees using medicinal marijuana.

In 2007, Plaintiff Daniel Cotto, Jr. was prescribed medicinal marijuana to treat a neck and back injury, which he disclosed to Ardagh Glass Packing, Inc. (“Ardagh”) when he was hired as a forklift driver.  In 2016, Mr. Cotto hit his head on a forklift, and Ardagh asked him to take a drug test before returning to work.  As a user of medical marijuana, Mr. Cotto told his employer that he would not be able to pass the test.  Ardagh, however, told Mr. Cotto he could not continue working there unless he tested negative for marijuana. Consequently, on December 1, 2016, Ardagh suspended Mr. Cotto for an indefinite period of time.

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Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

People suffering from a range of physical and mental disabilities frequently rely on companion animals, most commonly dogs, to assist them as they go about their day.  Most employers, however, prohibit employees from bringing animals to work, creating a tension between employer and employee based on a misunderstanding about disability.  As part of our series on mental health, this blog covers a case involving a companion animal for someone suffering from depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD).

Joyce Riggs worked for the Bennett County Hospital and Nursing Home (the “Hospital”) from March 2006 until her termination in March 2015.  Between 2006 and 2012, Joyce brought a companion animal to work with her to help manage her depression and PTSD.  When Ethel Martin became CEO in 2012, however, the Hospital adopted a more restrictive policy regarding pets in the workplace.  Joyce informally requested permission to continue bringing her companion animal to work, but the Hospital denied her request.

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by Owen H. Laird

This Summer, The Harman Firm Blog is running a series of articles on mental health in the American workplace.  Millions of Americans suffer from a wide range of mental health issues, be they diagnosed or undiagnosed, treated or untreated, living with the stigma surrounding mental illness and the lack of understanding about these disorders.  The variety and severity of these conditions runs the gamut from relatively minor issues to disabilities so severe they are completely debilitating.  But they are too often overlooked.  With that in mind, we will undertake a comprehensive analysis of how mental health issues – both arising out of the context of employment discrimination and those arising independently – affect workers, employers, lawyers, legislators, and the courts.

People with mental health issues make up an important segment of the workforce: they work in every sector of the economy and at every level – from the mail room to the boardroom.

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Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On April 30, 2018, in Sépulveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC, the First Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico’s dismissal of Victor Sépulveda-Vargas’s reasonable accommodation claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Mr. Sépulveda, an assistant manager at Caribbean Restaurants LLC (“Caribbean”), which operates Burger King restaurants in Puerto Rico, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression after he was attacked at gunpoint, hit over the head, and had his car stolen while making a bank deposit on behalf of Caribbean Restaurants.

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