9th Circuit: Independent Contractor Can Assert Disability Claim Under Rehabilitation Act

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled recently that an independent contractor may assert a disability claim against an employer under the Rehabilitation Act.  Click the link to read the opinion on Fleming v. Yuma Regional Medical Center

The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors. The standards for determining employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act are the same as those used in Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In Fleming, an anesthesiologist who worked as an independent contractor sued the medical center at which he worked, alleging a discriminatory constructive discharge.  The trial court dismissed the case on the basis that Fleming was an independent contractor and that the  Rehabilitation Act applied only to employee-employer relationships.  The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Rehabilitation Act provides a cause of action to any individual subjected to disability discrimination by any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.  While the Rehabilitation Act adopts the standards that are applied under the  ADA, it does not adopt the ADA's limitation to the employee-employer relationship. 

Independent contractors are not considered "employees" for purposes of most employment discrimination laws, and many employers hire independent contractors to avoid potential liability under such laws.  Fleming shows that, at least for employers covered by the Rehabilitation Act, independent contractors may still find ways to seek the protections of those laws despite their "non-employee" status.  In addition, many employers incur significant tax and other liabilities by misclassifying people as "independent contractors" when they really should be treated as employees.   For more information, the Internal Revenue Service offers this guidance for determining whether someone is or is not correctly classified as an independent contractor