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Disabled employee sues under NYHRL? HR managers may be held personally liable

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s a new worry for New York HR managers: Mess up too badly and you could be held personally liable for damages under the state’s New York Human Rights Law (NYHRL).

Something as simple as refusing to approve what turns out to have been a reasonable accommodation may leave you on the hook for thousands of dollars or more in damages. It’s another reason why you must know the laws on disability discrimination inside out.

Recent case: Mary Scalera worked for Electrograph Systems as a software programmer. When she was hired, she re­­­­vealed that she was disabled. Scalera uses a cane to walk because a genetic disorder severely affects her mobility.

Scalera asked for several accommodations. The two at the heart of her eventual lawsuit were a request for Electrograph Systems to install at least one toilet in the restroom that was 18 inches high, slightly taller than a standard toilet. She also asked for a grab bar in the same stall.

The company did agree to Scalera’s other requests. It allowed her to use an accessible side entrance, park close to that door and asked other employees to help her get to her cubicle.

But it didn’t respond to Scalera’s restroom requests. In fact, when Electrograph Systems remodeled its restrooms, it installed standard toilets throughout, and removed the sole grab bar that had been in place in one stall.

Scalera was terminated after she took a spill at work and used up her leave. She then applied for and received Social Security disability payments, workers’ compensation and benefits under two disability insurance policies.

Then she sued Electrograph Systems under both the ADA and the NYHRL, alleging disability discrimination and failure to accommodate. She added the company’s HR director to the lawsuit, alleging that she should be held personally liable for violating disabled employees’ rights.

The company first argued that it had provided all the accommodations it was obligated to provide by making sure she could get from her car to her cubicle and back again. It reasoned that the reasonable accommodation mandate only applied to things that allow employees to perform their jobs, not ancillary matters like using the restroom.

The court didn’t buy that argument. It said that attendance is an essential function of most jobs. Without restroom facilities, attendance isn’t possible.

Plus, it said the company’s view was too narrow. Disabled ­employees are entitled to enjoy all the benefits of their jobs that others enjoy, in­­cluding the right to use the rest­­room. Therefore, reasonable accommodations that allow disabled employees to fully participate in workplace life are required. That includes grab bars and seat height adjustments.

Finally, Electrograph Systems and the HR director argued that personal liability for ignoring an accommodation request isn’t allowed under the NYHRL.

The court disagreed. It said if an HR manager has broad powers to hire, fire, demote and discipline, she’s an “employer” under the law and therefore potentially liable. (Scalera v. Electrograph Systems, No. CV-08-50, ED NY, 2012)

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