Rehabilitation Act may protect independent contractors from disability discrimination

If you are a federal contractor, take note: You may be required to reasonably accommodate disabled independent contractors.

While the ADA only applies in employer/employee relationships, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that another federal law—the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—protects independent contractors from disability discrimination.

Recent case: Rochelle is a pediatrician who signed on as an independent contractor to provide pediatric services at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. When parents began complaining that Rochelle was providing substandard care, her contract was terminated.

That’s when she revealed that she had recently been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder-Mild (ASD-M), a condition formerly known as “Asperger’s Syndrome.” ASD-M is a psychological disorder characterized by significant difficulties in nonverbal communication and social interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.

Rochelle’s lawyers requested reinstatement of her contract, arguing that she needed a reasonable accommodation and that her condition explained her problems interacting with patients. They alleged that discharging her amounted to disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The pediatric-service provider argued that because Rochelle had been an independent contractor, the Rehabilitation Act didn’t protect her.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It said that while the ADA only applies to employees, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 permits employment discrimination suits by independent contractors. Rochelle’s case may go forward. (Flynn v. Distinctive Home Care, No. 15-50314, 5th Cir., 2016)