Federal Appellate Court Declines to Establish Standard for Analyzing Interference Claims Under the ADA

December 14, 2020

By: Stephen B. Stern

    In Menoken v. Dhillon, 975 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2020), the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declined to establish a specific standard to analyze claims alleging interference with an employee’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended (“ADA”), while it reinstated multiple claims that were previously dismissed against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).

    In Menoken, Cassandra Menoken worked as an attorney at the EEOC from 1982 until 2019.  In 2016, Menoken filed a lawsuit against the EEOC alleging the agency subjected her to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (“Title VII”), and it violated her rights under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (“Rehabilitation Act”).  The district court dismissed her complaint in its entirety and denied Menoken’s motion to reconsider, finding she failed to state a claim for retaliatory hostile work environment under Title VII, and failed to state claims for interference, failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, breach of confidentiality, and medical inquiry under the Rehabilitation Act.  The DC Circuit reversed the district court’s rulings with respect to the dismissal of the Title VII claim, as well as the interference and failure to accommodate claims, but affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the confidentiality and medical inquiry claims.

    Menoken’s primary claim was that the EEOC engaged in a multi-year pattern of harassment in retaliation for her filing various discrimination and retaliation claims starting in 1994.  She claimed that the persistent hostile environment caused her to seek medical treatment for depression, acute stress, severe hypertension, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.  As a result of these medical conditions, Menoken requested an accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act, which is comparable to the ADA, but for federal employers.  Menoken’s request for an accommodation was denied, however.

    The appellate court first analyzed the hostile environment retaliation claim under Title VII, explaining that an employee may bring such a claim if the employee alleges a series of “individual acts that may not be actionable on [their] own but become actionable due to their cumulative effect.”  The acts must be both “adequately linked such that they form a coherent hostile environment claim” and are “of such severity or pervasiveness as to alter the conditions of . . . employment and create an abusive working environment.”  To determine whether the acts are sufficiently linked, the court noted it should look at whether the acts “involve[d] the same type of employment actions, occur[ed] relatively frequently, and [were] perpetrated by the same managers.”  The appellate court agreed with the district court that the series of events Menoken alleged between 2002 and 2007 were not sufficiently linked to allege a viable claim, but it disagreed with the district court’s conclusions regarding the pay and benefits issues Menoken alleged in 2013.  To this end, the district court concluded that Menoken’s allegations of pay and benefits disruption occurred while she was not actively performing work and, thus, the claim necessarily failed as a matter of law.  But the appellate court noted that it has “reject[ed] a per se rule against considering incidents to have occurred while an employee was physically absent from the workplace” and courts are supposed to consider “any negative actions the employer takes during the [employee’s] absence” when assessing a hostile work environment claim.  The appellate court further noted that Menoken not only alleged payroll anomalies resulted from actions taken by her supervisor, but also that her supervisor and the human resources director ignored her communications about the payroll anomalies, which resulted in lost compensation and the threatened loss of health insurance, which in turn caused her greater anxiety.  The appellate court found that these actions are not the “ordinary tribulations of the workplace” that are not actionable, but are “precisely the type of conduct that ‘might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’”  As such, the appellate court reversed the district court with respect to the retaliation claim under Title VII as it related to the events that allegedly occurred in 2013.

    Next the appellate court tackled the failure to accommodate claim.  As with the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an individual who is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job.  Menoken alleged that she sought a reasonable accommodation in or about September 2012 to address the physical and mental injuries she was experiencing and she suggested several options, although she did not specify to the court what options she suggested.  The EEOC attached to its motion to dismiss and/or for summary judgment a form that indicated one of the types of accommodations Menoken requested was paid leave for six months or until such time as her discrimination complaints are adjudicated.  The EEOC argued that this request amounted to a request for indefinite paid leave, which the district court found to be persuasive in granting the EEOC’s motion.  The appellate court, however, determined the district court erred in that the documents submitted by the EEOC (in addition to the form, the EEOC included a doctor’s note that corroborated the request identified on the form) did not establish definitively that this was the only accommodation Menoken requested.  The court noted that the allegation in her complaint indicated she suggested several options and the declaration she submitted indicated she also sought a temporary reassignment.  As such, the appellate court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the reasonable accommodation claim.

    The appellate court then addressed the interference claim, which the district court held was not cognizable as a separate claim under the Rehabilitation Act.  Menoken had argued in her motion to reconsider that the ADA has a specific provision (42 U.S.C. § 12203(b)) that makes it unlawful “to coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with any individual” in the exercise of any right provided by the statute, and she incorporated that allegation by reference into her complaint.  The appellate court noted that it was an issue of first impression for it to determine the proper standard for analyzing an interference claim under the ADA and concluded that the district court erred by treating the anti-interference provision as an anti-retaliation provision.  According to the appellate court, interpreting those provisions the same would result in treating the anti-interference provision as surplusage, which is contrary to statutory interpretation principles, because the statute clearly has separate anti-interference and anti-retaliation provisions, meaning those provisions must be treated differently.  The parties advocated for similar interpretations of the provision, with the main difference being that Menoken advocated that plaintiffs be allowed to allege an employer’s discriminatory intent while the EEOC advocated that courts examine whether a reasonable employee would have understood the employer’s actions to interfere with his/her rights.  The DC Circuit declined to adopt a specific standard, however, finding that Menoken satisfied both standards advocated by the parties when reading her complaint as a whole.  To this end, the court noted that Menoken exercised her statutorily protected right to request a reasonable accommodation and the EEOC did not engage in the interactive process in good faith, but, instead, delayed processing her request to extract some concessions from her (such as executing a general release) and ultimately not offering any alternative accommodations.  The court then acknowledged that it shared the EEOC’s concern that adopting an expansive definition of “interference” may undermine the “flexible give and take” required of the interactive process when determining what accommodation(s), if any, is reasonable.  The court then clarified that its holding should not be interpreted to mean that allegations of delay or a proposed settlement offer during the interactive process necessarily amount to unlawful interference and its ruling was derived from a reading of Menoken’s complaint as a whole.  As such, the appellate court reversed the district court’s dismissal of Menoken’s interference claim.

    The court then quickly reviewed the dismissal of the medical inquiry and confidentiality claims, holding that the district court properly dismissed those claims based on Menoken’s allegations.

    The DC Circuit’s decision in Menoken is significant for multiple reasons.  First, although the court provided some guidance on analyzing claims that allege interference with disability rights by clarifying that the anti-interference provision is not an anti-retaliation provision, the precise contours of analyzing such a claim remain elusive, at least in the DC Circuit.  Second, the court illustrated how a hostile environment can lead to a retaliation claim.  Third, the decision is a good reminder that all employers should remain vigilant about implementing and enforcing anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation practices, as the defendant in this case was the EEOC, the agency that is charged with enforcing anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation statutes.