On Thursday, in Herbert v. Altimeter, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that an employee does not need to actually be disabled in order to be protected from retaliation for requesting an accommodation under Oregon’s disability anti-discrimination law. The case serves as a useful reminder that anti-retaliation protections, like those in the Oregon disability law, can be very broadly applied and protect many types of employee requests or complaints. Employers should be careful when disciplining or terminating any employee who has recently made some kind of arguably protected request or complaint.
Sherrie Herbert was terminated from her truck-driving job with Altimeter shortly after she became ill, allegedly from exhaust fumes in the cab of her truck, and she reported those problems to her boss. She sued under various retaliation theories, including that she was terminated in retaliation for her having requested an accommodation for a disability (i.e., requesting to be reassigned to a different truck). The trial court granted a directed verdict for Altimeter at the close of Herbert’s case at trial and dismissed all claims.
The Court of Appeals reversed. Altimeter argued that it couldn’t have retaliated against plaintiff for requesting an accommodation as a matter of law, because she was not disabled and therefore not protected under the Oregon disability law's anti-retaliation provisions. The court rejected that argument, noting that while the law requires Oregon employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to a “person with a disability,” the anti-retaliation provision, ORS 659A.109, protects any “worker” who requests an accommodation. So, the court reasoned, by its plain terms the statute protects a broader class of employees (all of them) who make protected requests for accommodations, even though those employees may not be entitled to an actual accommodation.
The opinion also contained an illustrative reminder about the importance of well-drafted written responses filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (“BOLI”), and similar agencies. Those written position statements are admissible later; if they’re not carefully drafted they could come back to bite the complainant. In Herbert, Altimeter’s BOLI position statement included several damaging admissions, the worst of which essentially stated that she was terminated because she insisted she be reassigned to another truck, i.e., requested an accommodation. Despite a general lack of other evidence of retaliation presented by Herbert at trial, the Court held that Altimeter's admission in the BOLI statement alone was enough to allow that claim to go to a jury.
Oops! While there are no easy, hard-and-fast rules about how to draft effective BOLI or EEOC position statements, generally you want to say as little as possible while still making your case, and above all, you don't want to provide the only evidence a plaintiff will need to take his or her case all the way to a jury!! Those kinds of careless statements early on can make litigating employment discrimination lawsuits very expensive for employers, because they become much harder to get dismissed before trial.