Hostile Work Environment Harassment May Be Based on Disability


Employees may bring a hostile work environment claim arising from disability, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Although this was the first time the Ninth Circuit addressed the issue, it joined a number of sister Circuits that had previously recognized such a claim.

In Mattioda v. Nelson, the employee had disabilities that required him to travel in a premium class for flights over an hour. He alleged that, after he reported his disabilities and requested travel accommodations, he was subjected to derogatory comments from his supervisors, who also inhibited his work opportunities, gave him unwarranted negative job reviews, and resisted his accommodation requests. The employee eventually sued for violations of the Rehabilitation Act (which is the analog to the Americans with Disabilities Act for federally-funded programs), claiming, among other things, that he had been subjected to hostile work environment harassment based on his disability.

Until this case, the Ninth Circuit had not yet decided whether harassment claims could be brought under the Rehab Act or the ADA. But here, the Ninth Circuit found that they could, observing that it was joining “the weight of consensus” by all sister Circuits previously addressing the issue (the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Tenth; the First, Third, Ninth, Eleventh and D.C. Circuits have assumed without deciding that such claims are possible). As these other Circuits had reasoned, the ADA uses almost identical language to Title VII, under which hostile environment harassment claims have long been recognized.

This case reminds employers that employees can bring hostile work environment claims based on disability, in addition to the more commonly asserted bases under Title VII of race, sex, religion and national origin. It is critically important that employers respond promptly and effectively to employee complaints of harassment, regardless of the basis.