E-Alert Case Updates
Fourth Circuit Rules Public Employees May Not Bring Public Employment Discrimination Claims under Title II of the ADA
Yasmin Reyazuddin v. Montgomery County, Maryland
Montgomery County, Maryland operated a call center using software that was inaccessible to blind employees. Yasmin Reyazuddin, a blind employee, was not transferred to this new call center, nor was she hired for an available position there. Reyazuddin claimed Montgomery County violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C.A. § 794 (2014), or Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the “ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 (2012).
Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, an employer must not discriminate against an employee because of his or her disability. Moreover, a reasonable accommodation must be provided by the employer to an employee who can perform the essential functions of a job with such an accommodation. The employer is not required to provide this accommodation if it causes undue hardship. Reyazuddin claimed Montgomery County violated Section 504 by failing to accommodate her disability by making the software inaccessible and discriminated against her when it did not transfer her to the call center. Further, she alleged that the County violated Title II of the ADA by not hiring her to fill a vacancy at the call center.
The United States District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment to Montgomery County on Reyazuddin’s Section 504 claims. The Fourth Circuit, however, found that genuine issues of material fact remained as to (1) whether Reyazuddin could perform the essential job functions of a call center employee; (2) whether the County reasonably accommodated her; and (3) if the County did not, whether its failure to do so may be excused because of undue hardship; thus, the case was reversed and remanded. Further, the district court granted summary judgment to Montgomery County on Reyazuddin’s Title II claim because public employees cannot use Title II to bring employment discrimination claims against their employers; this was affirmed by the Fourth Circuit.
The Court noted that employment discrimination claims brought under Section 504 are evaluated using the same standards as those applied under Title I of the ADA. Thus, Reyazuddin needed to show (1) she qualified as an individual with a disability; (2) the County had notice of her disability; (3) she could perform the essential functions of her job with a reasonable accommodation; and (4) the County refused to make any reasonable accommodation. Montgomery County could avoid liability by showing the accommodation would cause undue hardship.
The Court found that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to Reyazuddin’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job. She maintained that the County could configure its software to run concurrently in the accessible standard-interactivity mode or create a custom workaround “widget” for the CTI Toolbar. Her expert had worked with several call centers that employed such methods. The County countered that configuring the software in the inaccessible high-interactivity mode, with the CTI Toolbar, maximized employees’ efficiency and productivity while also keeping costs low. The Court questioned whether configuration is an essential job function, particularly because Reyazuddin had evidence that other call centers functioned without it. Moreover, the County argued she would not be able to read maps and PDF documents, which is necessary to respond to the center’s most frequent calls about public bus schedules and estimated arrivals.
In regard to making a reasonable accommodation, the Court stated that an employer must make a reasonable accommodation, not necessarily the accommodation that is requested. Here, the County provided comparable employment. Title I provides that job restructuring and reassignment to a vacant position are considered to be “reasonable accommodations”; however, the accommodation must still be a meaningful equal employment opportunity. Reyazuddin, who was able to maintain her salary, pay grade, and benefits, claimed that her new position entailed “make-work” tasks and did not amount to “meaningful” work. There existed a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the accommodation provided was “reasonable.”
While the district court found that the County prevailed on an undue hardship defense, the Fourth Circuit disagreed. At the district court level, Reyazuddin hired an expert who evaluated the cost of making the call center software accessible to her. The expert found that the lowest cost estimate would be $129,600. The County’s expert, on the other hand, estimated the cost to be $648,000. The district court found Reyazuddin’s expert to be unsupported because the cost did not factor in increased costs for maintenance. The Fourth Circuit held that the lower court improperly weighed conflicting evidence, did not view the evidence in the light most favorable to Reyazuddin, and this battle of the experts should not have been resolved at summary judgment.
Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination against a “qualified individual with a disability” in the delivery of “services, programs, or activities of a public entity.” The Court held that “services, programs, or activities” in Title II “most naturally refers to an entity’s outputs provided to the public rather than its inputs, such as employees.” The Court, in line with the majority of circuits, interpreted Title II not to cover public employment discrimination claims. The Court pointed out that a majority of the circuits have found that Congress divided ADA discrimination prohibitions into three parts: Title I for employment, Title II for public services, and Title III for public accommodations.
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