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Disability-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims Are Viable Under The ADA And RA

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Employers, Public Safety
DATE: May 03, 2024

Dr. Andrew Mattioda began working at NASA in 2000.  He has a degenerative defect in his hips and a disease of the spine, which causes uneven vertebrae growth and scoliosis.  These physical disabilities required Mattioda to purchase premium-class airline tickets for longer flights so he could frequently change positions and stretch.

By 2011, Mattioda had informed NASA about his disabilities and limitations.  From 2011-2018, Mattioda alleged he was discriminated against through: his supervisors’ derogatory comments; denial of work opportunities; unwarranted negative job reviews; and resistance to his requests for disability-based accommodations.

In 2011, one supervisor allegedly responded to Mattioda’s request for a premium-class upgrade and asked why Mattioda could not “just tough it out or suck it up and travel coach.”  That supervisor allegedly told Mattioda that he felt another scientist was doing all of Mattioda’s work and that he did not respect Mattioda.  The supervisor told Mattioda at a NASA holiday party that Mattioda need not get his hopes up for a promotion.

Mattioda alleged that the supervisor expressed those same negative sentiments to other employees, including telling one of Mattioda’s coworkers that he felt Mattioda was lazy and was “using his medical disability issues to avoid work.”  The disparaging comments were so pervasive that some colleagues told Mattioda they viewed the comments as “background noise.”

A supervisor allegedly inhibited Mattioda’s work opportunities by: declining to support Mattioda’s nomination for a promotion while supporting other candidates; failing to authorize a spot for postdoctoral program candidate to support Mattioda’s work; lying to Mattioda that he could not virtually present at a conference; declining to involve Mattioda in projects; and requiring only Mattioda, and none of his other colleagues, to submit an itemized travel request.

Another supervisor allegedly told Mattioda that he would have to use his own grant money to pay for premium-flight ticket upgrades and warned him that he could lose his job if he kept requesting such accommodations.  The supervisor also: expressed concerns on Mattioda’s performance reviews that his disability-related travel limitations would impact his career; lowered one of his ratings on that basis; and criticized him for not traveling to the point of questioning whether he was “still committed to being a high-profile scientist at NASA.

Mattioda sued in the federal district court, alleging a hostile work environment claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).  The district court dismissed the hostile work environment claim, finding that Mattioda had not established a causal link between the alleged harassment and his disabilities.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Mattioda had alleged a sufficient link to warrant a trial.  The Court explained that the threat of losing his job if he kept requesting premium-flight tickets as an accommodation was relevant to the hostile work environment claim.  The Court also noted that the district court failed to acknowledge that the alleged series of harassing conduct had occurred after Mattioda’s supervisors were informed of his disabilities.  As a result, Mattioda sufficiently established a causal link between the harassing conduct and his disabilities.

Finally, the Court rejected NASA’s argument that the harassment was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to establish a hostile work environment, explaining that Mattioda alleged his supervisors inhibited his work opportunities, repeatedly made harassing and derogatory comments over a period of years, vaguely threated his job, and made insulting comments about his reasonable-accommodation requests and job performance.  Taken together, Mattioda’s claims were enough to maintain a plausible hostile work environment claim.

The Court held that employees may bring disability-based hostile work environment claims under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act (RA).  With this decision, the Ninth Circuit joined other circuit courts that have considered the issue.

Mattioda v. Nelson, 2024 US App. Lexis 9641 (9th Cir. 2024).

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