The Future of Disability Harassment Law in the Workplace

By Jones, Charlie C. | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Future of Disability Harassment Law in the Workplace


Jones, Charlie C., SAM Advanced Management Journal


In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a claim of sexual harassment brought under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, thereby validating sexual harassment as a form of discrimination prohibited by that Act. Will a similar interpretation eventually develop regarding Title I of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, so that "disability harassment" cases are viewed as a form of discrimination against employees with disabilities? A review of the principles and cases arising from litigation under Title VII suggests that a similar evolution will take place with ADA's Title I. Penalties can be severe, so employers should become familiar with existing sexual harassment cases and take steps to limit potential liability for disability discrimination cases that might arise under Title I.

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) was this country's first comprehensive federal employment discrimination legislation. Section 703(a)(1) of Title VII states that it is unlawful for an employer "to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Although Title VII does not specifically prohibit harassment, federal district courts and then federal circuit courts soon began to recognize that harassment is a form of discrimination. In the 1986 case of Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, the United States Supreme Court recognized for the first time the existence of both quid pro quo and hostile environment sexual harassment under Section 703(a)(1) of Title VII. In this landmark case, the Supreme Court indicated its approval of prior court rulings recognizing sexual, racial, national origin, and religious harassment claims.

Unlike the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was limited in scope to certain federal government contractors and recipients of federal funds, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title I) applied to the same group of employers that Title VII covered. Thus, Title I was this country's first comprehensive federal employment discrimination legislation protecting individuals with disabilities. Section 102(a) of Title I states that "[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to ... terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." Title I does not specifically prohibit harassment, but like Title VII, federal district courts and several federal circuit courts have recognized that disability harassment is a form of discrimination protected by Title I. However, unlike Title VII, the United States Supreme Court has not yet recognized a disability harassment claim under Title I.

In addition to the similarities in language between Section 703(a)(1) of Title VII and Section 102(a) of Title I, other parallels between the two statutes indicate that the Supreme Court will recognize disability harassment under Title I. First, the principle purpose of Title VII is to make employment discrimination against an individual on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin unlawful ([section] 2000e-2(a)), while the principle purpose of Title I is to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities in employment ([section] 12101(b)). Second, the ADA adopts the powers, remedies, and procedures provisions of Title VII as its enforcement provisions (Title I at [section] 12117(a)). Third, the ADA incorporates by reference the definitions of "employee" and "employer" from Title VII (House of Representatives Report, 76). Fourth, the federal regulations promulgated to interpret and effectuate the ADA acknowledge the commonality of these two statutes (29 C.F.R. [section] 1630). Fifth, the EEOC interprets harassment to violate the discrimination prohibitions of both Title VII and Title I (EEOC Guide to Workplace Harassment Issues).

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The Future of Disability Harassment Law in the Workplace
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