Claim For Hostile Work Environment Viable Under ADA, Eighth Circuit Rules

Author:Ms Naomi Katz
Profession:Holland & Knight LLP
 
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Originally published May, 2004

Addressing the issue for the first time, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects workers against disability-based harassment causing a hostile environment. The court ruled, however, that a factory worker who was routinely called "platehead" did not show that his work environment was sufficiently severe to recover. Shaver v. Independent Stave Co. d/b/a Salem Wood Prods. Inc., No. 03-1878, (8th Cir. December 1, 2003).

Employee Subjected to Disability Harassment

John Christopher Shaver worked for Salem Wood Products. As a result of epilepsy Shaver suffered as a teenager, he underwent surgery in which part of his brain was removed and replaced with a metal plate. Shaver claimed that his co-workers repeatedly referred to him as "platehead" because of the surgery.

After Shaver got into a dispute with his supervisor, he was fired for alleged insubordination. Shaver then sought employment with several personal acquaintances and told them to contact the supervisor for a reference. When contacted, the supervisor replied that he could not recommend Shaver because he had "a get rich quick scheme involving suing companies." None of Shaver's acquaintances offered him a job, but he later found work when he provided the name of a different Salem supervisor as a reference.

Shaver sued Salem, alleging that he was unlawfully harassed as a result of his epilepsy and the related surgery in violation of the ADA, and that he was retaliated against for claiming harassment. The district court dismissed Shaver's harassment claims, finding that, although the treatment of Shaver "may have been insulting, mean-spirited, and unprofessional, ... as a matter of law, [it] was not so severe and extreme that a reasonable person would find that the terms and conditions of his employment had been altered." The court also dismissed the retaliation claim, ruling that Shaver had "manufactured" his retaliation claim by referring his acquaintances to a supervisor who he knew would likely provide a negative recommendation.

Disability Harassment Is Actionable

Addressing the question for the first time, the Eighth Circuit ruled that disability-based harassment can violate the ADA. First, the Court concluded that Shaver was disabled within the meaning of the ADA. It reasoned that Shaver's pre-surgery epileptic seizures showed a record of an impairment, and that the fact that co-workers called him...

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