Plaintiff Lacks Standing to Claim Website Violates ADA Where It Does Not Impede Ability to Access Physical Location of the Business

With the rise in lawsuits under Title III of the ADA regarding accessibility of websites, Courts have been framing how such claims fit into the law’s requirements for accessibility at places of public accommodation.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida recently provided additional clarification in Gomez v. Knife Management, LLC (S.D. Fla. Sep. 14, 2018).  The Defendant owns and operates a chain of restaurants.  There is no dispute that the restaurants are places of public accommodation covered by the ADA.  Defendant also maintains a website with information about the restaurants.  Plaintiff alleged that he was unable to fully utilize the website because he is vision impaired and portions of the website are not readable by screen reader software.  However, Plaintiff did not allege that he attempted to visit one of the restaurants, that he intended to visit one in the future, or that the website impeded his ability to access the restaurants or the goods and services they offered.

There have been many decisions evaluating how a website could fall under the ADA’s coverage of public accommodation the way that a physical “brick and mortar” store or restaurant would be covered.  Courts in the 11th Circuit require some nexus between the website and access to the physical location such that the ADA would prohibit a website from impeding a disabled person’s full use and enjoyment of the physical location.  It is not enough for an individual to claim that the website only denied access to information about the physical location.  An individual would have to show that he/she was an unable to access the website and an intent to patronize the physical location again if there was access to the website.  An individual could also state a claim if he/she could show that the website impeded their ability to access to the physical locations or the goods or services offered there.

In this case, the Plaintiff did not claim he intended to visit the restaurant in the near future or ever for that matter.  He also did not allege that the website impeded his ability to access the restaurant.  The claims were dismissed because he only claimed that he “attempted to access” the website “but was unable to…enjoy full and equal access…and/or understand the content.”  As such, access to the website was not tied to his access to the restaurant.  With no nexus between the website and the ability to access to the physical location Plaintiff lacked standing to bring his ADA claims.

Despite this decision, we do not expect the wave of website accessibility cases to slow down anytime soon.  While the Court concluded that the Plaintiff’s allegations were insufficient in this case, it also provided a road map for what must be alleged to state a valid claim.  Any Company operating a place of public accommodation must therefore remain vigilant with regard to the accessibility of its website.

Village of Northbrook Opts Back In to the Cook County Earned Sick Leave Ordinance

Are you tired of the Cook County Earned Sick Leave roller coaster, yet?

Last Tuesday, the Village of Northbrook, Illinois, became the most recent Cook County municipality to opt back in to the Cook County Earned Sick Leave Ordinance, joining Western Springs, which — as we previously reported — did an about-face in April and reversed its prior decision to opt-out of the Ordinance.  Beginning January 1, 2019, covered employers with employees in Northbrook will be required to comply with the Ordinance and provide eligible employees with one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked.

Although the Village of Wilmette also recently reconsidered its prior decision to opt-out of the Ordinance, it ultimately reaffirmed its original decision. However, the issue will be presented to Cook County voters in the upcoming election on November 6.  It is unclear whether the will of the voters and/or the recent decisions of Northbrook and Western Springs to opt back in to the Ordinance will spur similar action by other Cook County municipalities.

Be on the lookout for further updates after the election.

Court Finds Standing Requirement for ADA Title III Claim Requires Plaintiff To Have “Concrete and Realistic” Plan to Return to the Hotel

A recent Middle District of Florida decision granted the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s claims for relief under Title III of the ADA based on Plaintiff’s lack of standing to bring such claims.  In Kennedy v. Cape Siesta Motel (MD FL Oct 4, 2018) the Plaintiff claims she encountered architectural barriers upon her visit to a motel in Brevard County, Florida.  The Plaintiff lives about 175 miles from the motel but has a second home about 79 miles from the motel which she visits two to three times a month.  On those occasions she would drive through Brevard County.  Plaintiff alleged she “plans to return to Brevard County frequently within the next few months” and those plans include returning to the property “in the near future to avail herself of the goods and services made available.”  The Defendant moved to dismiss arguing Plaintiff has no standing to bring her ADA claims because she lives 175 miles from the property, visited at most on only three occasions, and lacks definite plans to return.  The Court granted Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and evaluated the four factors used to determine standing as follows:

 1. Proximity to the subject property: Plaintiff has one home 175 miles from the property and another 79 miles from the property.  That distance negates the likelihood of future injury.  The occasional travel through the county does not alter this conclusion because there is no indication that her travel through this large county brings her near the hotel or that she would be spending the night there to break up the trip.  Plaintiff argued that the “proximity” test is inappropriate and should not be applied in the context of a hotel but the Court explicitly rejected that argument

2. Past patronage: The Court found this factor was met by Plaintiff since she made up to three prior visits.

3. Definite plan to return:  Plaintiff failed to demonstrate a definite plan to return.  She states generically that she plans to return to the property “in the near future to avail herself of the goods and services made available” but the Court held that these are just “generic statements” of a “some day plan.” Plaintiff’s general plan to return to Brevard County often does not change the analysis.  It is a large county and there was no “concrete and realistic plan that Plaintiff will return to the property.”

4. Frequency of travel near the business:  Plaintiff did not meet this factor even though she has a second home and travels through the county in which the property is located when going from her primary home to her second home.  There was no indication that she would travel near the property when driving through the county.

 This case provides a helpful analysis and application of law for Defendants seeking to challenge Title III claims based on standing and it is not necessarily limited to cases involving hotel properties.



FMLA Leave for Chronic Health Conditions Requires Proof of Periodic Doctor’s Visits

When an employee takes medical leave, treatment by a healthcare provider is often assumed, and the frequency of doctor’s visits is rarely scrutinized.  The Pennsylvania federal court’s recent decision in Watkins v. Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh alerts us that this is not always a wise approach. In evaluating FMLA leave entitlements, verifying continuing medical treatment can be well worth the trouble.

 Watkins, a military veteran who suffers from PTSD, worked for Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services (BVRS) as an employment specialist.  In July 2015, Watkins fell victim to a random act of violence when an unknown individual fired multiple bullets at her car while she was driving. Her tires were shot, her window was shattered, and one bullet lodged itself in the driver’s side headrest, barely missing her head.  The event caused a flare-up of Watkins’ PTSD symptoms.  After the shooting, Watkins had difficulty functioning, experienced irritability, anxiety, stress and loss of concentration, and was fearful of leaving her home. 

 A year later, in June 2016, Watkins’ supervisors learned that Watkins had been submitting inaccurate client information for financial reimbursements.  She was given a notice of unsatisfactory work performance and told to remedy the situation and submit needed documentation.  She failed to comply and was counseled further, but her performance issues continued.   On July 5, Watkins failed to report to work as directed to complete backlogged paperwork and claimed she had suffered a mental health emergency.  BVRS received a letter from Watkins’ healthcare provider the next day, stating that Watkins was being treated for PTSD symptoms and would be able to report back to work on July 7.  Watkins did not return to work on July 7 and remained absent thereafter with only sporadic intermittent attendance.  She was ultimately discharged for job abandonment.

 Watkins sued BVRS for interference with her FMLA rights, alleging that BVRS had failed to provide her with FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.  BVRS asked the court to dismiss the case on summary judgment, in part because Watkins could produce no evidence that she had a serious health condition entitling her to FMLA leave.  The court agreed.  Since Watkins was never hospitalized and never went through inpatient treatment, she had to show she was receiving continuing treatment from a health care provider for her chronic health condition.  The court recognized that PTSD can be a chronic ailment that continues over an extended time period.  But under the FMLA regulations, Watkins had to further show that she received continuing treatment for PTSD, which means periodic doctor’s visits occurring at least twice a year.  While Watkins testified that she had been in treatment with her doctor for seven years and had initially seen the doctor quite regularly, she admitted that her visits had tapered off and were now only on an as needed basis.  Indeed, she  could not even remember if she physically went to see her doctor on July 5, the day of her mental health emergency.  Because Watkins failed to establish that she visited a healthcare provider at least twice a year for PTSD, she could not show that she had a serious health condition and was entitled to FMLA leave.

 The bottom line?  When an employee requests FMLA leave for a chronic health condition, take a careful look at the certification form completed by the employee’s healthcare provider.  Does the provider identify a period of hospitalization or identify recent dates of treatment?  Does the provider confirm that the employee will need periodic visits at least twice a year?  If the answer is negative, the employee may well not qualify for FMLA leave.


Another Court Decides That Extended Leave is Not a Reasonable Accommodation

As employers struggle with managing how much, if any, leave is required as an accommodation under the ADA, we are beginning to get more direction from the Courts to guide those decisions. In Easter v. Arkansas Children’s Hospital (E.D. Ark. Oct. 3, 2018) an employee was unable to work after exhausting her FMLA leave but she had an appointment to be evaluated by a specialist less than a month later. The employer denied the additional leave and terminated her employment. The Court held there was no violation of the ADA.

The Plaintiff worked as a specialty nurse and her job duties involved speaking on the phone with patients, insurance companies and doctors. She had a condition in her esophagus that interfered with her ability to speak and she went out on FMLA leave. After the initial approved leave period her doctor sent the Hospital a note stating she would be “unable to perform her current line of work for an indefinite amount of time.” The Plaintiff remained out on FMLA leave until it was exhausted. At the end of her FMLA leave the Hospital asked for an update and she reported that she still could not work but that she had an appointment with a specialist in 20 days to determine when she would be able to return. She requested additional leave until she could be further evaluated. The Hospital denied the request and terminated her employment.

The Court concluded that Plaintiff’s request for additional leave amounted to a request for indefinite leave. There was no information indicating when she could return to work and perform the essential functions of her job. The most recent doctor’s note stated she would be unable to work indefinitely and indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation. Citing an earlier decision the Court stated that “a leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation where it is finite and will be reasonably likely to enable the employee to return to work.” Having an upcoming appointment for evaluation did not establish a finite period of time for the employee to return to work.

Employers are often faced with situations where an employee has a date in the near future for further evaluation but does not have a return to work date. While the Court agreed with the employer in this case, these situations are very fact specific and employers must continue to proceed with caution.

Michigan Passes Paid Sick Leave Law

On September 5, 2018, Michigan became the 11th state to enact a mandatory paid sick leave law — the Earned Sick Time Act. The act was a citizen petition-initiated measure that the state legislature approved. Under the act, employees accrue a minimum of one hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours worked. All employees (full-time or part-time) would be entitled to use 72 hours in a year, but whether that time is paid or unpaid depends on the size of the employer. Employees of “small businesses” (employers with fewer than 10 employees) may accrue up to a maximum of 40 hours of paid sick time and 32 hours of unpaid sick time each year unless the employer selects a higher limit. Employees of businesses with 10 or more employees may accrue up to 72 hours of paid sick time per year unless the employer selects a higher limit. Earned sick time carries over from year to year, but the annual maximums still apply. An employer’s paid leave policies that provide leave in at least the same amounts required by the act are sufficient to maintain compliance.

An employee may use earned sick time for his or her own mental or physical illness or condition, medical diagnosis or treatment, preventative medical care, relocation related to domestic violence or sexual assault, participation in criminal proceedings related to domestic violence or sexual assault, and other categories set forth under the act. Employees may also use earned sick time to support a family member for similar reasons.

There are many similarities between Michigan’s Earned Sick Time Act and other paid sick leave laws or intermittent leave under the FMLA, but the act is more administratively burdensome in some ways:

  • Employers can choose how to calculate a “year” under the act using any consecutive, twelve-month period, but employees may use earned sick time in the smallest increment that the employer’s payroll system uses to account for other absences.
  • While an employer may require up to 7-days’ notice for foreseeable leave, notice for unforeseeable leave need only occur “as soon as practicable.”
  • Documentation to support the use of earned sick time can only be required for use of more than 3 days and that documentation is limited to a statement that the time is necessary. It should not include a description of the illness or details of the violence.
  • If an employer requires documentation, it is responsible for paying all out-of-pocket expenses the employee incurs in obtaining the documentation. Further, an employer cannot delay commencement of the leave based on a failure to receive documentation
  • Employers must provide written notice of an employee’s rights under the act.
  • Employers may not retaliate against an employee for engaging in activity protected by the act. Importantly, there is a rebuttable presumption that an employer violated the act if it takes any adverse personnel action against an employee within 90 days after the employee engages in protected activity.

The act officially takes effect in March 2019, unless the employer has employees subject to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). In that instance, the act applies to employees subject to the CBA as of the date the CBA expires, regardless of any statement that the CBA will continue in full force until a future date or event (such as the execution of a new CBA).

Importantly, if the legislature had not approved the initiative, it would have appeared on the state ballot on November 6, 2018. Thus, there has been some discussion that the legislature passed the act to keep it off the ballot and may amend it in the near future. Stay tuned.

Department of Labor Issues Updated FMLA Forms

On September 4, 2018, the Department of Labor issued new FMLA notices and certification forms. But don’t panic, the change was procedural in nature; no substantive changes were made to the forms.

Under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, the DOL is required to submit its forms for approval to the Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) every three years. While the prior forms expired on May 31, 2018, the DOL had renewed them on a temporary basis pending approval by the OMB.

With the OMB’s approval completed, the DOL has issued updated forms reflecting an August 31, 2021 expiration date. Even though, with the exception of the updated expiration date, the newly issued forms are identical to the prior forms, employers should ensure that they are using the most current forms, which are available on the DOL’s website.

What Am I Doing Wrong?? Common FMLA Mistakes

What did I do wrong?” and “Am I doing this correctly?” are frequent questions from clients regarding FMLA administration. This is the seventeenth in a series highlighting some of the more common mistakes employers can inadvertently make regarding FMLA administration.

Being unaware of new FMLA interpretations from the U.S. Department of Labor.

While the current version of the FMLA regulations has been in place since 2013, is important to keep up to date on the interpretation of the regulations by the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (“DOL”). This is especially the case now.  After a hiatus of several years, the DOL is again issuing opinion letters on the FMLA regulations. On August 28, 2018, the DOL issued two new advisory opinion FMLA letters.

Whether organ donation is a serious health condition

On August 28, 2018, the DOL published an opinion letter which answers the question, “Does organ-donation surgery…qualify as a ‘serious health condition’ under the FMLA?” In short, the DOL answered: “yes, it can.”

The DOL analyzed this question under a scenario where the donor is in good health before the donation, and chooses to donate the organ solely to improve someone else’s health. Citing the FMLA regulations, the DOL maintained that an organ donation can qualify as an impairment or physical condition that is a serious health condition when it involves either “inpatient care” or “continuing treatment.” Therefore, an organ donor can use FMLA leave for post-operative treatment, even where the organ-donation surgery requires an overnight stay.

To read the DOL’s opinion, see Organ Donation Opinion Letter

“No-fault” attendance policies

In the second letter, the DOL tackled the question of whether an employer’s no-fault attendance policy violates the FMLA where the policy effectively freezes, throughout the duration of an employee’s FMLA leave, the number of attendance points that the employee accrued prior to taking leave. The DOL concluded that such a policy does not violate the FMLA, provided it is applied in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Under the employer’s policy, employees accrue points for tardiness and absences, not including absences stemming from FMLA-protected leave. The points remain on an employee’s record for twelve months, and the employer extends that period for any time the employee spends not in “active service” including FMLA leave and other types of leave. The DOL noted that an employee neither loses a benefit that accrued prior to taking leave nor accrues any additional benefit to which the employee would not otherwise be entitled. The DOL reinforced its long-standing position that such practices do not violate the FMLA, as long as employees on equivalent types of leave receive the same treatment. The DOL noted, however, that if the employer counts equivalent types of leave as “active service” under its no-fault attendance policy, then the employer may be unlawfully discriminating against employees who take FMLA leave.

To read the DOL’s opinion, see No Fault Opinion Letter

The Devil Is in the Detail – FMLA Eligibility and Remote Workers

With the increasing trend of telecommuting employees, it is not uncommon for a company to have small numbers of employees working from remote locations in various states. It is important that employers understand how FMLA eligibility is determined for remote workers.   Some incorrectly believe that a work-at-home employee cannot qualify for FMLA if the home from which they work is not in proximity of 49 other company employees or within 75 miles of a company worksite.

The FMLA regulations state that an eligible employee under the FMLA must, among other things, be “employed at a worksite where 50 or more employees are employed by the employer within 75 miles of that worksite.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.110(a)(3).

The FMLA regulations do not define “worksite.” However, Section 825.111(a)(2) of the regulations, which address how to determine whether 50 employees are employed within 75 miles, states:

An employee’s personal residence is not a worksite in the case of employees, such as salespersons, who travel a sales territory and who generally leave to work and return from work to their personal residence, or employees who work at home, as under the concept of flexiplace or telecommuting.  Rather, their worksite is the office to which they report and from which assignments are made.

As such, a remote employee’s worksite can be a location where they do not physically work.

For example, ABC Company employs 49 workers who are based and work out of its Atlanta, Georgia headquarters. ABC also employs Sally, who works from home in Orlando, Florida. Sally gets her assignments from her manager who works at the company’s Atlanta headquarters. Under the FMLA, Sally’s worksite is Atlanta.

This is one example of the many intricacies of the FMLA regulations. The FMLA also has special rules for employees who have no fixed worksite, such as construction workers. In those situations, the worksite is the site to which the employee is assigned as their home base, from which their work is assigned, or to which they report. The FMLA regulations provide the following example to illustrate this nuance:

[I]f a construction company headquartered in New Jersey opened a construction site in Ohio, and set up a mobile trailer on the construction site as the company’s on-site office, the construction site in Ohio would be the worksite for any employees hired locally who report to the mobile trailer/company office daily for work assignments, etc. If that construction company also sent personnel such as job superintendents, foremen, engineers, an office manager, etc., from New Jersey to the job site in Ohio, those workers sent from New Jersey continue to have the headquarters in New Jersey as their worksite. The workers who have New Jersey as their worksite would not be counted in determining eligibility of employees whose home base is the Ohio worksite, but would be counted in determining eligibility of employees whose home base is New Jersey.

29 C.F.R. § 825.111(a)(2)

The examples above are two of the many intricacies of the FMLA. Jackson Lewis can assist employers ensure that their leave administration process is complaint with both the FMLA and the large body of state leave laws.

Employers Must Have Duties Based Reasons to Support the Assertion that Full-Time Attendance Is an Essential Job Function

Teenagers are not the only ones dissatisfied when their pleas of “why” are met with a “because I said so.” It turns out that courts of appeal do not care for it either.

Careful readers of this space know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require employers to allow modified work schedules when appropriate. An issue that often arises when considering a modified work schedule is whether an employee can perform the essential functions of their job if they are not at work full time.
A recent decision from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals makes it clear that employers cannot insist that a disabled employee work full time just because the employer says so. In Hostettler v. College of Wooster, 6th Cir., No. 17-3406, July 17, 2018, Heidi Hostettler was fired by her employer, the College of Wooster, while recovering from postpartum depression and separation anxiety after the birth of her child.

Believing that Hostettler was suffering from “one of the worst cases of separation anxiety” that he had seen, Hostettler’s doctor provided a restriction that Hostettler return on a part-time basis only, working a total of two or three days a week. The physician believed this would only last a couple of months.

Hostettler’s supervisor generally agreed to that accommodation but countered that she work 5 half-days per week instead. Hostettler accepted this and returned to work in late May on that schedule. Her performance evaluation, conducted in July 2014, contained no negative feedback, and referred to Hostettler as a “great colleague and a welcome addition to the HR team!” Shortly thereafter, Hostettler submitted an updated medical certification that continued the restriction and estimated that she could return to a full-time schedule in early September. The next day she was fired because, the supervisor argued, the department could not function appropriately unless Hostettler could return to full-time work immediately.

Hostettler sued. The district court granted Wooster’s motion for summary judgment, accepting the college’s assertion that full-time presence was an essential function of the HR Generalist position. According to the District Court, because she could not work full time, she was not qualified.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed. The Sixth Circuit held that although full-time presence may well be an essential function of some jobs, it is a fact-specific inquiry and depends on the job. Hostettler was able to point to two employees who had received longer periods of medical leave for non-pregnancy conditions and she presented an affidavit from a co-worker that there were no problems in HR resulting from Hostettler’s working part-time and that all the department functions had been fulfilled. This, according to the appeals court, created questions of fact that a jury needed to resolve: “In sum, full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says that it is. If it were otherwise, employers could refuse any accommodation that left an employee at work for fewer than 40 hours per week.”
The thoughtful employer will not deny a request for a part-time accommodation unless it can show (and hopefully document) that full time presence requirements are logically tied to some other work-related requirement.