Employees subjected to sexual harassment have long been able to bring legal claims under Title VII alleging creation of a hostile and offensive working environment. Over time, these legal principles extended to other classifications protected under Title VII, including race, religion, and national origin. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a separate law from Title VII, and numerous federal courts have been asked whether plaintiffs can bring claims under the ADA for hostile environment harassment based on disabilities. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals joined other federal circuits in concluding that the ADA allows disability harassment claims.
In Ford v. Marion Co. Sheriff’s Office, the plaintiff was a deputy who was injured in an automobile accident. She alleged that both her employer and co-workers harassed her over her injuries and her inability to return to her prior duties that resulted from the accident. She appealed a grant of summary judgment on her harassment and other ADA claims.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed with all other federal appellate circuits to consider the issue, concluding that the ADA permits hostile environment harassment claims using the same legal principles set forth under Title VII case law. Like Title VII, disability harassment claims relate back to the first alleged incident, meaning that older actions that are part of a continuous pattern of harassment are not time barred. However, the court concluded that under this legal standard, the plaintiff had not met her burden of proving a hostile environment based on disability. The Seventh Circuit characterized many of the alleged comments made to her about her condition as offhand remarks, and one direct comment about her condition resulted in immediate demotion of a co-worker.
Employer anti-harassment training should not focus solely on sexual harassment. Employers should make sure that the training covers other prohibited forms of harassment against persons in protected classifications under federal and state law.