I’ve written before about the dialing for dollars phenomenon in Fair Housing Act claims (click here) and about how cheap standing facilitates litigation aimed more at profit than progress (click here). There is good news on both fronts from the Texas Workforce Commission, which recently dismissed several FHA complaints because the organization that filed them, a private corporation called Fair Housing Advocates, could not demonstrate it had standing. Fair Housing Advocates is operated by Patrick Coleman, one of the two owners of City Vision, a similar organization devoted to making money by means of HUD complaints. Citi Vision appears to have abandoned the dialing for dollars business earlier this year, probably because TWC started dismissing its complaints for lack of standing. More
A news story about a children’s theater group caught my eye this week because it so vividly illustrates the trouble a business can get into if it does not understand the law of reasonable accommodation under the ADA. You can read the story HERE. In brief, a potential theater member with a severe peanut allergy requested that the theater have a “no nuts” policy and that the director be willing if necessary to help the child with his epi-pen. The owner declined and probably said some unfortunate things about the request. Eventually the DOJ got involved and now, unless the matter settles, everyone will be off to court.
What went wrong? First, it is clear that the theater director did not understand the reasonable accommodation obligation and even more important, did not understand the “interactive process” that the ADA regulations encourage.* The name of the game in reasonable accommodation is trying to find a solution to the problem presented. A requested accommodation is not something to be accepted or rejected; it is something to be talked about. For a business this has the value of creating the appearance of reasonableness and, even more important, the opportunity to think about the issue carefully. In this case the first requested accommodation – making the theatre nuts free – is about as cheap and easy as it gets. All the theater owner had to do notify other parents that nuts were forbidden.
The second accommodation – willingness to use the child’s epipen – was more problematic. Many organizations are reluctant to administer prescription drugs. In a litigation happy society, it just seems like too big a risk to take. Here too, though, simply thinking through the problem and doing a little on-line research would have led to a different result. First, it only takes a little time with the internet to find that the Department of Justice has been suing or investigating child oriented business about epipens for more than 15 years. Unless you really want to take on Uncle Sam about whether peanut allergies are a disability** the battle isn’t worth fighting.
Perhaps more important, it seems likely that the theater already had a general release of some kind that all the parents had to sign. The owner’s demand for a special waiver of liability might not have been necessary and certainly looked like discrimination against one particular child based on a disability.
Finally, it would have been worth while to think through when an epipen is to be used. Epipens are for emergency use, and in many ways a child or adult in anaphylactic shock is like a person who has suffered a severe wound. Would the theater director really stood by and watch a child suffer because he didn’t want the risk of liability? Probably not. The refusal in advance to do something he would have done in the event of an emergency was pointless.
The moral of the story? Consider every request for accommodation as an invitation to try to solve a problem, and then think through – perhaps with the help of a lawyer – what risks would come from granting the accommodation and what risks might come from denying it. Reasonable accommodations are all about being reasonable, and that requires knowledge and a rational analysis of the various risks and costs involved.
* The “interactive process” is best defined in employment cases under Title I of the ADA and landlord tenant cases under the Fair Housing Act, but courts apply it in Title III cases as well.
**Many courts hold that food allergies are not disabilities. (See my blog HERE) DOJ disagrees, and the Supreme Court has not opined on the subject. Since DOJ will fight and has unlimited resources it isn’t the best opponent to take on with respect to this kind of claim.
I reported in September on the decision in Phillips v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro finding that a plaintiff with celiac disease had not stated a claim for discrimination under the ADA based on P.F. Chang’s policy of charging $1.00 extra for gluten free meals. On November 23, 2015 the same court found that the plaintiff had stated a claim based on an enhanced set of allegations in her Amended Complaint. Phillips v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc., 2015 WL 7429497, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 23, 2015). This is a very common pattern in ADA litigation: Once the plaintiff knows what to say, he or she is almost always willing to say it in order to get past a Motion to Dismiss. For restaurants and their owners this latest decision requires some thought and possibly the adoption of new policies concerning menu items. More
There is nothing the Supreme Court loves more in a discrimination case than a set of shifting burdens of production, persuasion, proof, or whatever other word starting in “p” the Court thinks will describe complicating the analysis of a discrimination case. It proved this recently in Young v. United Parcel Service, a pregnancy discrimination case, but the process goes back to McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Greene, a race discrimination case decided in 1973. The McDonnell Douglas waltz goes like this: plaintiff has to make a preliminary showing of discrimination, the defendant has to show that it had a non-discriminatory reason, and then the plaintiff has to prove the defendant was really motivated by discriminatory feelings. By way of contrast an ordinary lawsuit just puts a single burden on the plaintiff; that is, prove the defendant did something wrong. The McDonnell Douglas waltz guarantees that discrimination litigation will be more complex, time-consuming and expensive than an ordinary lawsuit. More
On its face EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, which was recently argued before the Supreme Court, doesn’t have much to do with the ADA and FHA. It has been generally reported as a case concerning religious discrimination, and seems to have little to do with disabilities. Despite this, the Court’s ruling could have a significant impact on how employers and public accommodations handle reasonable accommodation requests. Putting aside the legalese, the question before the Court is whether “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a reasonable way to deal with those whose religious beliefs, or disabilities are not obvious.