Sunday, July 16, 2017

Textualism Gone Mad?

BlogimageA district court in Minnesota recently held that retaliation against a prospective hire for requesting an accommodation wasn’t actionable under §704(a). At issue in EEOC v. N. Mem'l Health Care was a claim on behalf of an applicant whose conditional offer of employment was revoked after she requested an accommodation, even though she later indicated she was willing to meet the employer’s requirements. 

The court gave short shrift to both the participation and opposition clauses of §704(a). There had been no filing before the revocation of the offer, so participation was not implicated. As for the opposition clause, the court reasoned that the statute required opposition to what the plaintiff in good faith believed to be unlawful discrimination, and there was no evidence that the applicant believed that North Memorial was acting unlawfully: “In other words, merely requesting a religious accommodation is not the same as opposing the allegedly unlawful denial of a religious accommodation.” The court cited several other district court decisions to similar effect.

It dismissed ADA authority to the contrary on the basis of differences between the statute, especially 42 U.S.C.S. § 12203(b) (which declares it unlawful “to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere” with the exercise or enjoyment of any right under the statute). But, in the process, it cited Eighth Circuit dicta to the effect that, even under the parallel language of the ADA, “it might be thought that [plaintiff’s claim of retaliation for requesting an accommodation] never gets out of the starting gate.” Kirkeberg v. Canadian Pac. Ry., 619 F.3d 898, 907 (8th Cir. 2010).

In short, Memorial Health Care may be more than a one-court anomaly and but may reach beyond Title VII’s duty of religious accommodation to threaten what many view as the core protection of the ADA.

One response to this is the Supreme Court’s decision in Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337 (1997), which read “employee” in the statute to bar retaliation in job references against a “former employee,” in part “because to hold otherwise would effectively vitiate much of the protection afforded by § 704(a).” Similarly, since employers are generally said not to have a duty to accommodate unless the employee requests one, to permit discharge of individuals for requesting accommodation would essentially read the duty out of both statutes. Interesting, Robinson wasn’t cited in either North Memorial or Kirkeberg.  

But it’s also true that Justice Thomas’s opinion for the Court in Robinson looked to larger purposes and consequences only after finding “employee” to be ambiguous to begin with. So a committed textualist might find no ambiguity in the reach of the retaliation proscription and so deem irrelevant the resultant torpedoing of the duty of accommodation.

Maybe the whole problem under Title VII can be avoided by not looking to retaliation law in the first place. The conditional employee’s offer was rescinded after she had indicated that she would “make it work” by coming in on Friday night if she could not find a replacement. That would seem to fit directly within the definition of religious discrimination announced by the Court in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch: “an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” Thus, an employer that fires someone (or revokes an offer) for asking for an accommodation would seem to be guilty of discrimination in the first place under Title VII. (For unexplained reasons, the EEOC denied the applicant’s claim of religious discrimination and pursued only the retaliation one). Similar reasoning might apply to the ADA although another way out of the textualist box under that statute is the hitherto underutilized § 12203(b).  


Hat tip to my RA, Henry Klimowicz, Seton Hall Law ’19

Employment Discrimination | Permalink


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