Justice is Blind? Fired Blind Barber Awarded $100,000 for Disability Discrimination

 

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“Beware of the young doctor and the old barber” – Ben Franklin

Although common sense may have been on his side at the time, if Ben Franklin voiced his sentiment in the workplace now, he would likely face and lose an age discrimination case.

Case in point – a legally blind barber sued his former barber shop claiming it terminated him because of his disability after he had tripped over a customer’s legs and tripped over a chair in the waiting room (all in the same day).  The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination awarded the “blind barber” (as his loyal customers called him) $100,000 in damages.

The case has many lessons for employers:

Don’t assume you will win every lawsuit.   There are no “slam dunk” legal cases.  You need to show up and put on a solid defense.  Here, the employer hurt his cause by not attending several hearings.

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The facts, not just “common sense,” matter.  Sometimes the law doesn’t seem to comport with common sense.  One would think eliminating the risk of having a customer’s ear cut off  (much less a horrible haircut) would be a legitimate reason to terminate.  Would you want this?

 

BUT the barber had passed his state board exam, worked for a year without incident, and had customers who knew he was legally blind and didn’t care.  Those facts mattered more than the “common sense” fear of a blind person wielding sharp objects.

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Don’t play doctor.  An employer dealing with an employee with a disability should not presume or make assumptions about the effects of a person’s disability on their ability to do the job.  Here, the employer’s defense would have been greatly bolstered if it had obtained a fitness for duty exam by a qualified medical professional that determined the employee could not safely perform his duties and there was no accommodation that would enable him to do so.

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Timing  and optics are critical.  The employer purportedly did not know until the “day of great tripping” that the barber  was visually impaired.  It then immediately fired the employee, claiming (after the fact) that the employee “had not been pulling his weight.”  The “optics” simply do not look good (pun intended).

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Get your ducks in a row.  An employer seeking to terminate the employment of an individual in a protected classification should, if at all possible, issue written progressive discipline beforehand.  Apparently there were no prior written warnings in this case.  As the employer had never previously fired another non-disabled barber for simply tripping over a chair or a customer’s legs, the whiff of discrimination in the blow dried (h)air was strong.

 

Lies, Damn Lies and (EEOC) Statistics

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“98% of all statistics are made up”  ~Author Unknown

On February 4, 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released its Fiscal Year 2014 Enforcement and Litigation Data”  report (“EEOC Report”).  The EEOC Report, chock full of statistics regarding employment discrimination charges brought against employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and other Federal statutes, is a statistician’s dream.

As Mark Twain reportedly said, however, “facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”   Perhaps not surprisingly then, the EEOC Report can be interpreted to contain good and bad news for employers:

Good news:  The total number of discrimination charges filed against employers actually fell almost 5% in fiscal 2014 from the year prior.
Bad news:     There were still 88,778 EEOC discrimination charges filed against employers in 2014. (This does not count state and local charges).

Good news:  In 2014 the EEOC dismissed 65.6% of the discrimination charges during the investigation stage.
Bad news:     In 2014 the EEOC recovered over $318 million from employers through its enforcement, settlement and litigation efforts. 

Good news:   In 2014 age discrimination charges dropped almost 20% from their peak in 2008.
Bad news:     Retaliation claims reached an all time high, comprising nearly 43% of all discrimination charges.

Good news:  The EEOC files suit in less than 8 percent of the cases where it believes discrimination occurred and no settlement is reached.
Bad news:     The EEOC filed 133 “merits” lawsuits across the country, and claims a 90% success rate at resolving matters in district court.

Hopefully 2015 will only bring your company good news.  Decrease the possibility of bad news by adopting some human resources “best practices”  found here and here.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
 Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
 @wagelaws 

 

Legally Lethal Employment Interview Questions

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Most employers are aware that there are numerous obvious questions that are simply “off limits” and should not be asked of an applicant during an employment interview.   For example: How old are you?  Do you have a disability? Are you pregnant?

But, there are many other questions that, on their face, many not appear to be discriminatory, but are still legally troublesome.  These loaded questions either (1) imply that a protected characteristic will be a factor in the hiring decision, or (2) will elicit information that will put you on notice that the individual falls into a protected classification.  Unfortunately, if you don’t hire the applicant, he/she will assume his/her answer to one of these questions was the primary reason for being rejected, and file a discrimination charge.

Here’s several legally risky questions one should avoid asking during an interview:

1.  “Do you have kids?” Similarly, “Are you planning on having kids?”  “What kind of childcare arrangements will you make?”  Problem: gender discrimination; pregnancy discrimination; “caregiver” discrimination.  Do you ask this of all applicants, or only female applicants?

2.  “Your last name is so unusual.  What nationality is it?” Problem: national origin and/or ethnicity discrimination.  Do you ask caucasian applicant Michael Smith this?  Nothing good can come from the knowledge you obtain from this question. Control your genealogical curiosity, and don’t ask.

3.  “Is your spouse ok with moving to _______ for the job?” Similarly, “Will your spouse be ok if you have to travel a lot for the job?” Problem: gender discrimination; sexual orientation discrimination; marital status discrimination. Do you ask this of all applicants, or only female applicants?  What if they refer to their “partner” of the same gender, or that they’re divorced? Now you have knowledge of something personal that is irrelevant to whether the applicant can do the job.  Given that some states prohibit sexual orientation and marital status discrimination, in addition to gender discrimination, you face a triple threat. 

4.  “What year did you graduate from high school / college?”  Problem:  age discrimination.  Do you ask this of all applicants, young and old?  Or just those who look older? One can easily  approximate the applicant’s age with the knowledge of a high school and/or college graduation date.  A savvy applicant will assume you asked it to figure out how old he is, and suspect age discrimination is at play.

5.  “Have you ever been arrested before?”  Problem: race discrimination; arrest/conviction record discrimination.  The EEOC has taken the position that asking about arrests and convictions may lead to a discriminatory “disparate impact” on minority candidates.  Generally, asking about a past arrest that did not result in a conviction is very risky.  Several states and cities also have prohibitions on what can be asked regarding an applicant’s arrest and/or conviction record.    Employers should be aware of any state and local laws before asking these questions.  

Answers to the above questions are generally not relevant to whether the applicant can perform the job’s essential functions.  Bottom line – if there is no business reason to ask them, and often only leads to bad things (i.e. a lawsuit), don’t ask them.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
             @wagelaws

 

 

 

 

 

EEOC Expands Reach of Pregnancy Discrimination Act

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On July 14, 2014 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued its first “enforcement guidance” on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) since 1983.  One of the more significant aspects of the Guidance is the EEOC’s view of an employer’s duty to accommodate pregnant workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The EEOC now takes the position that employers must accommodate a pregnant employee’s work restrictions to the same extent it accommodates non-pregnant employees with similar restrictions.

This means, in the EEOC’s view, that employers who offer light duty work to individuals injured on the job must also offer light duty work to pregnant employees with work restrictions, regardless of the fact that the light duty policy only applies, by its terms, to those employees who have restrictions stemming from a work related injury.

The EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance is quite extensive.  The entire Guidance document can be found here:

http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/pregnancy_guidance.cfm .

The EEOC also issued a “Questions & Answers” document, found here:

http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/pregnancy_qa.cfm .

As if that wasn’t enough summer reading, the EEOC also issued a “Fact Sheet” that summarizes the PDA’s requirements at:

http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/pregnancy_factsheet.cfm .

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws

3 AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT MYTHS

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Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was enacted in 1990,  employers and employees still hold certain misconceptions about the law and its requirements.  Here are three common myths surrounding the ADA:

MYTH #1 – The company can condition an employee’s return to work on the employee providing a “full medical release” without restrictions.

REALITY:  The company can require a medical release before an employee can return from a medical leave.  But, it cannot demand that the release be “restriction free.”  Rather, if the employee presents  restrictions with the release, the company must determine if it is able to provide a reasonable accommodation to the employee to enable the employee to perform the job’s “essential functions.”

MYTH #2 – If an employee’s disability is controlled by medication(s), the employee is not disabled.

REALITY:  The amendments to the ADA make clear that an employer cannot take into account the mitigating effects of medication or equipment on the employee’s medical condition in assessing whether the employee has a disability.  The employee can still be considered disabled even if the medication or device adequately controls the employee’s symptoms.

MYTH #3 – A company can enforce a leave of absence policy that provides an employee will be terminated if unable to return from a medical leave after a specific number of weeks or months.

REALITY:  Although a “leave of absence” can be a reasonable accommodation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) takes the position that an employer cannot “automatically” terminate an employee if the employee is unable to return to work after a specific period of time (e.g. 6 months or a year).  Rather, the EEOC views such “blanket” policies as violating the ADA’s requirement that the employer treat each accommodation situation on an individual basis.  Instead, the employer would have to establish that no other reasonable accommodation exists before terminating the employee.

 

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws