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ADA: Hostile Work Environment Criteria and Demotion as Accommodation

Brigid Ford was a deputy in the Marion County Sheriff’s Office when her dominant hand was seriously injured in an on-duty car accident. She was assigned to light duty for approximately one year. When it was clear that she could not resume her prior position, Ford was told that she must choose between a transfer to a permanent position that would result in lower pay or end her employment. Ford accepted a civilian position as a jail visitation clerk. Ford claimed that she was subjected to a hostile work environment based on her disability in this new position. There were two distinct periods of harassment, one allegedly from 2015-2016 and the next from 2015-2016. The first period ended when the offending employees were transferred, and the latter when the purported harasser was assigned to other duties. Ford sued, alleging disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
After losing on her claims at trial or on summary judgment, Ford appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. For the first time in that circuit, the court held that hostile work environment claims may be brought under the ADA. This holding is aligned with the interpretation reached by other circuit courts faced with the same issue. Ford argued that both periods of harassment should be combined and viewed as continuing harassment. Because there were 18 months separating the periods of harassment, different managers during the respective periods, and remedial action, the court concluded it was not a continuing violation. The first period was outside the statute of limitations and thus dismissed. Ford failed to establish that the second-period harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive and it was quickly remedied once the Sheriff’s Office was on notice.

Ford also argued that her demotion was not a reasonable accommodation of her disability. She lost on this claim as well because she did not “come forward with evidence that a more equivalent position for which she was qualified was vacant at the relevant time.” The court also rejected Ford’s argument that the reassignment itself was disability discrimination because a “demotion that qualifies as reasonable accommodation” as is required by the ADA cannot at the same time “constitute disability discrimination or retaliation prohibited by the ADA.”