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James Tarquin, P.A
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Are Employees Protected From Disability-Based Hostile Work Environment Harassment?

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Through their decades of experience representing employees, our employment lawyers in Marion County, Florida know that employees with a disability within the meaning of employment discrimination law are often subjected to harassment because of their disability. For example, employees with a disability within the meaning of employment discrimination law are frequently targeted for verbal abuse, humiliating and degrading comments, pranks, and physically threatening behavior. In this article, our employment lawyers in Marion County, Florida explain how the decision in Mattioda v. Nelson, 2024 WL 1710665 (9th Cir. April 22, 2024) shows employees are protected from disability-based harassment which is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile working environment.

Hostile Work Environment Harassment Claim

In that case, a man named Mattioda brought an employment discrimination lawsuit against his employer, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”), pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The ADA protects employees from discrimination on the basis of disability. Mattioda claims that he was subjected to disability-based harassment in violation of the ADA.

In 2000, Mattioda began working for NASA as a scientist. Mattioda suffers from, among other things, a degenerative defect in his hips and Scheuremann’s disease of the spine, which causes uneven vertebrae growth and scoliosis. Since 2007, his orthopedist has written reasonable accommodation letters stating that Mattioda must fly in premium class for flights longer than an hour because he needs to avoid prolonged sitting and be able to change positions frequently and stretch due to physical disabilities affecting his hips and spine. By 2011, after multiple surgeries, Mattioda had informed NASA about all his disabilities and orthopedic limitations.

From 2011 to 2018, Mattioda claims that his experience at NASA was plagued by derogatory comments from his supervisors, supervisors who inhibited his work opportunities, unwarranted negative job reviews, and resistance to his accommodation requests. In 2011, Mattioda approached his supervisor, Lee, about an upcoming work-trip and advised Lee of his physical disabilities and premium-class travel request. After Lee learned of the cost of the requested travel upgrade, Mattioda claims that Lee “openly discussed” his disabilities in front of others, and asked why Mattioda could not “just tough it out or suck it up and travel coach.”

Alleged Disability-Based Harassment

This incident, according to Mattioda, was the first in a “series of harassing comments and events.” For example, Mattioda alleges that Lee told him that he believed another scientist was “doing all the work” for Mattioda and that he did not “respect [Mattioda] or [his] work.” And during a meeting with colleagues, Mattioda maintains that Lee criticized his work to the point that one of the meeting attendees told Mattioda after the meeting that he felt Lee was acting “aggravated or angry” at Mattioda. In another meeting, Mattioda suggested that he could oversee a co-worker’s work, and Lee allegedly nearly shouted at him. Additionally, at a NASA holiday party, Lee purportedly told Mattioda “not to get his hopes up” for a promotion for which Mattioda’s name had been submitted.

Lee also allegedly made comments about Mattioda to other NASA employees. One co-worker told Mattioda that Lee had expressed that he did not respect Mattioda’s work, thought Mattioda was lazy, and thought Mattioda was “using his medical and disability issues to avoid work.” Other co-workers told Mattioda that Lee disparaged Mattioda so often that they considered such comments as “background noise.”

Mattioda further alleges that Lee inhibited his work opportunities. For instance, Lee declined to support Mattioda’s nomination for a promotion but supported other candidates. Lee also failed to authorize a spot for Mattioda’s Postdoctoral Program candidate, who would have supported Mattioda’s work. Lee allegedly misrepresented facts by stating that Mattioda could not appear at a conference virtually to which he was unable to travel. And Lee purportedly declined to involve Mattioda in projects and required Mattioda to submit an itemized travel request for a project that Lee did not require from another NASA employee.

Mattioda alleged that he also had problems with another supervisor, Dotson. Mattioda claims that he requested a travel upgrade as an accommodation from Dotson, but Dotson “improperly” told Mattioda that he would have to use his own grant money to pay for the upgrade. Dotson also purportedly warned Mattioda that he could “lose [his] job” if he kept requesting travel accommodations. Dotson was also allegedly resistant to other accommodation requests from Mattioda, telling him she could not “find any magic pots” of money and requiring him to go through steps not required of other to receive his requests.

Appellate Court Revives Claim

The trial court dismissed Mattioda’s claim that he worked in a disability-based hostile environment. According to the trial court, Mattioda’s allegations did not rise to the level of sufficient severity or pervasiveness to create a disability-based hostile working environment in violation of the ADA. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, reversed the trial court’s dismissal, and reinstated Mattioda’s hostile work environment harassment claim.

Unlike the reversed trial court, the Ninth Circuit found that Mattioda “has alleged sufficiently severe or pervasive harassment” to state a plausible hostile work environment claim under the ADA. In support of its holding, the appellate court observed that Mattioda alleges that Lee “inhibited [his] work opportunities and repeatedly made harassing and derogatory comments over a period of years, and he has described specific examples.” The court of appeals also pointed out that Mattioda further alleges, among other conduct, that Dotson “vaguely threatened his job, demeaned him by making him sign a letter acknowledging Dotson’s refusal to reconsider Mattioda’s poor performance rating, and made insulting comments about his reasonable accommodation requests and job performance.”

Marion County, FL Employment Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Florida, our employment attorneys in Citrus County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of hostile work environment harassment victims. If you have been required to work in a hostile environment or have questions about your rights as a victim of hostile work environment harassment, please contact our office for a free consultation with our employment lawyers in Marion County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes hostile work environment harassment cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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