Archive for the 'Court' Category

Obesity Under the Americans With Disabilities Act

The U.S. has the dubious honor of being the on again off again world leader in obesity throughout the 21st century.  Mexico has only recently knocked us off our top spot. Obesity has grown from 13% of people in 1962 to 19.4% in 2003 to 35.7% in 2010.  The most recent figures show a slight decrease in obesity: only 34.9%, or 78.6 million U.S. adults, are obese.

Obesity-related illnesses have led to between 100,000 and 400,000 deaths per year in the U.S., depending on the statistics you read. Approximately $147B is spent on medical expenses for obesity-related diseases every year in the US—exceeding even the health care costs associated with smoking.

Obesity is clearly a serious health epidemic. However, it is a particularly divisive one.  While countless people struggle with obesity due to an underlying medical issue, it can also be caused by lifestyle and diet choices.  These diet choices can also be essentially forced on a person through food deserts, areas with little access to fresh food, limiting the availability and affordability of healthier food options.  This dichotomy has left the courts struggling to agree on an approach to obesity under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)—the act which provides federal protection against discrimination based on a disability. Is obesity a disability?  How do we approach providing legal protection to people based on something that could be the product of potentially changeable behaviors?

Defining Obesity

In order to discuss obesity, we’ll first need to define exactly what it is. The American Medical Association (AMA)  has classified obesity and morbid obesity as diseases.  The AMA defines a disease as something which incorporates 1) an impairment of the normal functioning of some aspect of the body; 2) characteristic signs or symptoms; and 3) harm or morbidity.  While this isn’t a legally binding holding, it is persuasive and underscores how dangerous widespread obesity is as an epidemic. Obesity

Obesity is distinct from being overweight. While overweight is defined as simply being over a weight that is set for your height and bone structure, obesity requires having a body mass index (a comparison of your height to your weight) greater than 30.  To put that in context, the average healthy person has a BMI of 18.5-25.  Morbid obesity is defined as either having a body mass index of 40 or more, being greater than 100 pounds over the average weight for your height, or a body mass index of 35 or higher coupled with serious obesity-related medical complications.

A Changing Approach to Obesity Over Time

Up until 2008, the ADA did not cover obesity unless there was a proven underlying medical cause.  Some courts considered morbid obesity as a disability regardless of cause, but obesity without an associated medical condition basically never got the nod.  However, new amendments to the ADA in 2008 under the particularly hard to say ADAAA have changed the analysis of obesity by requiring that the term “disability” be provided a broader reading by the courts.

The ADA now defines disability as a person who has one of three things: a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, a history or record of such an impairment, or is perceived by others as having such an impairment.  The amendments also broadened the interpretation of “substantially limits” to require less, forbad the consideration of mitigating measures that could be taken in the analysis of a disability, expanded the definition of “major life activities,” and provided a non-exhaustive list of such activities which included caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working.

These changes have made it much more likely that obesity, regardless of cause, is a protected disability under the ADA. The fact that mitigating measures that could be taken are not considered, coupled with the fact that obesity likely substantially limits many of the enumerated major life activities.  What’s more, a discrimination claim under the ADA now only requires a showing that a person’s been subject to adverse employment action (eg. fired or refused a promotion) because their employer perceives that they have a physical or mental impairment—regardless of whether they have an actual disability covered by the ADA or whether their impairment actually limits a major life activity. However, this type of discrimination can be awfully hard to prove without a smoking gun email or letter as it mostly concerns the mental state of an employer.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) certainly has decided that the changes mean that obesity is a disability, regardless of cause. After the ADAAA, the EEOC stated that, based on their guidelines, all obesity and morbid obesity are considered disabilities which can be subject to disability discrimination.

Since the changes, case law has been relatively sparse on the issue. However, recent cases are mixed in their approach.  A number of rulings since the ADAAA, including decisions as recent as 2010, 2012 and 2014 have held that obesity can be a disability, regardless of voluntariness. This being said, earlier this very year the 8th Circuit Appeals Court held that all obesity—including morbid obesity—can only be considered a disability if there is an underlying medical issue.

While some courts still seem reticent towards broad recognition of obesity as a disability, arguing the impracticality of declaring a third of the population disabled and that the actual disability of obesity is the underlying medical cause, the trend seems to be towards recognizing all obesity as a disability under the ADA. At the very least, it has reached the point where it would behoove employers to take steps to ensure they make reasonable accommodations—any accommodation that would not cause undue burden to the employer—for their obese employees.

Employment Discrimination Based on Perceived Status

Sometimes, an employer makes adverse employment decisions based on perceived membership in a protected class. For example, a job applicant may be rejected because he is believed to be Muslim, even if he is not. Or, an employee with an altered gait may be denied a promotion because of her perceived need for job accommodation. These adverse employment actions may be illegal.

Some federal and state laws directly address perceived status. For example:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination due to perceived disability.
  • California law protects workers against discrimination based on perceived race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, disability, genetic information, marital status, sex, age, sexual orientation, or military/veteran status.
  • New York State’s Human Rights Law bans discrimination based on perceived sexual orientation.
  • New York City’s Human Rights Law goes even further and prohibits perceived discrimination based on age, race, creed, color, national origin, gender, disability, marital and partnership status, caregiver status, sexual orientation, or citizenship.

Unfortunately, many federal and state laws do not directly address discrimination based on perceived status. This has led to confusion and inconsistent legal interpretations.

Perceived Disability and the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically prohibits discrimination against people with perceived disabilities. The statute recognizes that employers sometimes assume that an individual with a physical or mental disability requires unnecessary accommodations. The ADA states: Discrimination

An individual meets the requirement of “being regarded as having such an impairment” if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.

If you have been the victim of discrimination due to a perceived disability, you should contact the EEOC or an employment lawyer.

Is Employment Discrimination Illegal Based on Other Perceived Statuses Illegal?

Unlike the ADA, other federal laws do not specifically prohibit discrimination based on perceived gender, race, age, national identity, or religion. Instead, the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination “because of [an] individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) similarly bans discrimination because of an individual’s age. There is absolutely no discussion of perceived status in these laws.

When a statute or law fails to clearly address an issue or protection, individual judges and courts are left to fill the gap. Typically, judges evaluate the language of the statute, legislative intent, and other factors to decide how the law should be applied. Unfortunately, this case-by-case and jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction approach may lead to inconsistency.

In cases of discrimination due to perceived status, different federal courts have arrived at different decisions. For example:

While the EEOC’s Compliance Manual prohibits discrimination based on perceived membership in a protected class, courts have not always deferred to this opinion.

It may seem counterintuitive (and against public policy) to allow incorrect categorization of an employee as a defense. Unfortunately, the Civil Rights Act and the ADEA’s lack of clarity have led to this inconsistent application of the law.

Pursuing a discrimination claim against an employer is complicated because laws vary depending on where and when you file your claim. In a perceived status case, your rights may vary dramatically based on your location.

Do I Need an Attorney?

An employment lawyer will help you choose the correct law and help with the filing deadlines specific to your claim. You should also consider legal representation if you have been offered a severance package or waiver.

California Court Rejects Challenge to End of Life Option Act

For some, it seems like an unthinkable and barbaric concept, but for others, it comes as a relief. Regardless of your own personal beliefs, physician-assisted suicide or death with dignity laws are never fun topics to discuss.  Nonetheless there’s been a recent movement, albeit slow, towards passing laws that aid terminally ill patients in dying.

California recently became the 5th state to enact an aid-in-dying law.  The End of Life Option Act was signed into law by Governor Brown in October of 2015, and was to officially go into effect on June 9, 2016.  However, a group of physicians, the American Academy of Medical Ethics, and the Life Legal Defense Foundation filed suit requesting the law be immediately suspended.

A California Court rejected the temporary restraining order that was filed, but will allow the plaintiffs to proceed  with their lawsuit regarding the concerns of the lack of safeguards against abuse of the law, so this won’t be the last time we’re hearing about this issue.

Terminally Ill Patients Can Voluntarily Request an Aid-in-Dying Drug

The Act permits terminally ill adult patients with the mental capacity to make medical decisions to be prescribed an aid-in-dying medication. Certain conditions, however, must be met before the drug will be prescribed.  End of Life

In order to be eligible to even request a prescription, an individual must meet the following criteria:

  • Be an adult of at least 18 years old or older,
  • Be a California resident,
  • Have a diagnosis from a primary physician stating the patient has an incurable and irreversible disease,
  • Diagnosis must also, within reasonable medical judgment, state the patient’s disease will result in death within 6 months,
  • Be able to make medical decisions for themselves as determined by health professionals,
  • Voluntarily request a prescription for an aid-in-dying drug without influence from others, and
  • Be able to self-administer the aid-in-dying drug (must be eaten, drank, or swallowed and cannot be administered via IV from a physician).

The law states the request must be made by the patient and the patient alone. A power of attorney, advance health care directive, conservator, health care agent, surrogate, or any other legally recognized health care provider will not suffice.  A request must be solely and directly made by the patient to his/her attending physician.  This should provide some sort of solace to those against these types of aid-in-dying laws, as this provision only helps ensure the decision is actually coming from a patient.  Even so, this isn’t enough for some.

Despite Strict Guidelines, Doctors Are Concerned Law is Too Vague

The group that brought the restraining order to suspend the law argued the definition of “terminally ill” within the Act was too vague and risks abuse of the law. Their primary argument rests on concern that the law allows coercion of terminally ill patients, but their suit alleges a whole slew of other ethical and procedural issues.

Patients that are given a 6-month prognosis sometimes make it way beyond that time frame and plaintiffs argue prognosticating a patient’s future is flawed, which suggests they believe this is a standard that shouldn’t be used when prescribing an aid-in-dying drug. Further, the plaintiffs argue, the drugs are unreliable and often can cause inhumane complications that can sometimes force physicians to administer a lethal injection and become a case of euthanasia.

On top of those arguments, the Act doesn’t require patients to administer the drug in the presence of a physician and it provides both civil and criminal immunity without requiring so little as a good faith standard that must be upheld on behalf of physicians. Nor does the Act require seeking consultation with a mental-health specialist unless the physician believes there’s a pre-existing mental disorder, all of which seem to be troublesome concerns.

While it’s certainly an extremely personal decision, the plaintiffs do have some good arguments. Protective measures, like requiring a consultation with a mental health professional, would only further ensure the law isn’t being abused.

How Do We Balance the Two Needs?

In recent years, the issue of death with dignity laws broke headline after headline when a young 29-year-old woman, Brittany Maynard, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Maynard was a California resident where, at the time, any type of death with dignity was not an option.  Her family made the decision to uproot their life to Oregon, where death with dignity is authorized.  Despite her illness, Maynard became the face of advocacy pushing for legislative change.  Maynard has since passed away, but her message remains.

Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Montana are among the 5 states that allow physician-assisted suicide, while at least 20 other states are considering some form of death with dignity legislative change. It’s a touchy subject and probably one both sides will never see eye-to-eye on.

Brock Turner’s Early Release Renews Mandatory Minimum Sentence Debate

Why do we have mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses but not for crimes like rape? That’s the burning question in everyone’s mind in the wake of Brock Turner’s early release from prison.  I’m not sure anyone hasn’t heard the name Brock Turner. If you’re not familiar with the case though, Turner is the former Stanford student who was convicted for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.

Turner gained national attention because of the lenient sentence he received, presumably because of a biased notion that a Stanford athlete shouldn’t be punished as harshly as some every-day Joe. In his now infamous sentence, Judge Persky gave Turner such a light sentence because the judge felt, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”

Although he faced up to 10 years in prison, Turner was sentenced to only 6 months in jail and was released on good behavior after serving a mere 3 months. Many were appalled at the judge’s sentence but, because judges are given wide discretion when it comes to sentencing in the absence of a mandatory minimum law, he was within the boundaries of the law.

Mandatory Minimums Versus Judicial Discretion

California has since passed a bill, currently awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s approval, that would institute a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of penetrating an intoxicated or unconscious person, but that’s only in the wake of the Turner case. It doesn’t solve the issues surrounding other crimes that may warrant a similar minimum. Legislators have, in the past, expressed support for that very same judicial discretion they’re now wanting to take away.

While there’s pros and cons on each side, it’s hard for some to get past the inequities. Is it fair and just that some nonviolent drug offenders are serving more time than a sex offender?  Probably not. Brock Turner

Just to give some perspective, federal law mandates a minimum of a 5-year sentence for a conviction of selling 28 grams of crack cocaine. Here’s some more perspective—28 grams is equivalent to about an ounce.  There’s 16 ounces in a pound.  Certainly, we don’t want those drugs being sold on our streets, but I can’t fathom how that’s worse than rape.

Those against mandatory minimum sentences argue prison overcrowding is a huge problem. In California, for example, the average cost to incarcerate one person for a year is $64,000, which is more than what many Americans make in a year.  Further, opponents argue mandatory requirements lead to unfair and unjust prison sentences, as well as inequities in minimum sentencing compared to sentences that depend on judicial discretion.  The very same argument can be made, however, in favor of mandatory minimums because either option can create sentencing inequity.  This is easy to see in the cases of nonviolent drug offenders who are serving more time than a sexual offender.

While mass overcrowding is certainly an issue that should be addressed, it’s not a strong enough reason to forego mandatory minimums simply because it doesn’t outweigh letting potentially dangerous criminals out on the street. Personal bias, unfairly targeting minority groups, creating coercion, and unjust sentencing seem to be the better arguments from a moral standpoint.

At the same time, mandatory minimums may keep criminals off the street for lengthier periods, but recidivism rates are high and they do nothing to prevent other criminals from taking their place while they’re in jail.

Taking Away Judicial Discretion Only Puts Power into Another’s Hands

An important argument that often gets missed is that taking away a judge’s power to use discretion essentially puts sentencing power in the hands of someone else—the prosecutor, more specifically. It rings true that when mandatory minimum sentences are required, a prosecutor can essentially pick the sentence when they decide which charges to bring against a defendant. Sentencing isn’t a power that should belong in the hands of a partial charging party.  The state represents the people and they can always recommend a sentence, but a judge’s role is to be impartial, fair, unbiased and to ensure the laws are followed.

Then what do you do when the judge is biased and unfair? Some say the judge was most definitely unfair and biased in the Turner case.  Mandatory minimums could help eliminate any personal bias one may have, say, for example, towards a successful athlete from a prestigious school, but there’s pitfalls on both sides.

Again, it’s an ongoing debate that doesn’t seem to have an easy solution. Whether focusing efforts towards crime prevention all together is the answer is left to be decided, but it seems a change must come.

Racially-Themed Dorms Fair for All?

California State University of LA (CSULA), UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and University of Connecticut (UCONN) have all recently come under scrutiny due to their racially themed dorms.  The concern is that the themed living arrangements—targeted as they are at persons of color—represent a revived attempt at racial segregation. These colleges are far from alone in offering such housing. There are quite a few campuses that offer similar housing arrangements.

The many housing arrangements vary from sections of a dormitory hall reserved exclusively for African-American men (UCONN), to sections of a dormitory hall designed to be focused on respect for the cultures of persons of color (CSULA and UC Davis), to entire houses dedicated to respecting the culture of persons of color (UC Berkely).

Joining these housing arrangements is 100% voluntary. With the exception of the UCONN hall section, all of these housing arrangements are open to any who apply.  The hall sections are all within a fully integrated dorm.  Generally, they are all created with the goal of creating a more comfortable space for persons of color—free from micro-aggressions and bullying.  The exception to this is, again, UCONN’s attempt at themed housing, which has a stated goal of promoting higher retention and graduation rates among African-American men.

My colleague has recently written a truly excellent article, addressing whether or not these themed housing arrangements are, in fact, veiled racial segregation. It notes that racial discrimination is still an everyday experience for persons of color—providing a safe space from hate crimes and bullying is something to be lauded. It also determines, probably correctly, that these themed dorms are not unconstitutional segregation. Dorm 2

However, the possibility of segregation is an extremely dangerous one. UCONN’s African-American male exclusive dorm hall has already drawn complaints from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as beneficent racism.  Their complaints cite the words of Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, the psychiatrist whose testimony contributed to the U.S. Supreme Court striking down segregation in schools once and for all—the greatest triumph of white racism would be “to persuade its black victims that segregation was not only acceptable but desirable in itself, and that the justification for this separatism was color alone.”

What are the potential dangers to minority students? What legal liability could the colleges implementing them may open themselves up to?

Segregation and Fair Housing Rules

Suffice it to say Supreme Court decisions and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 work together to make government and private acts of segregation illegal and unconstitutional today. However, despite being made unconstitutional over a half a century ago; segregation is still not exclusively a thing of the past.  With this in mind, the Fair Housing Act exists to prevent discrimination in housing—including in college dorms.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits, among other protected classes, race-based discrimination in housing by public or private actors. The Act protects against many types of discrimination, first and foremost refusal to rent or sell (or make available for rent or sale) a property to somebody based on a protected characteristic such as race. It also bars discriminating in terms of conditions rental or sale, misrepresenting availability of housing, or advertising for housing.  Fair housing claims also frequently arise out of discriminatory application processes.  The act also bars “steering,” or directing somebody to look in a specific place for housing based on a protected characteristic.

Even beyond all these protections provided by the Fair Housing Act, organizations which take grants from the federal government—such as every single university which has introduced racially-themed housing listed above—are held to an even higher standard by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Just last year HUD published a ruled placing an obligation on those who take advantage of certain grants to affirmative further fair housing by taking “steps proactively to overcome historic patterns of segregation, promote fair housing choice, and foster inclusive communities for all.”

What Does This Mean for Themed Dorms and the Universities that Offer Them?

As my colleague determined, these themed dorms are very unlikely to be actual segregation based on the facts in front of us. Just considering that they are open to all who apply by itself points heavily in this direction.  The only program that is actually exclusionary in any sense is the UCONN program that has come under fire—only serving men who identify as black.  Even then, the fact that participation is totally voluntary would undercut most arguments of segregation.  HUD standards explicitly state that the Fair Housing Act does not prevent people from living where they choose—it only prohibits “policies and actions by covered entities and individuals that deny choice or access to housing or opportunity through the segregation of persons protected by the Fair Housing Act.”

The most common complaint now is “reverse racism.” To be blunt, these housing arrangements do not represent discrimination against white people.  While race-based discrimination under the Fair Housing Act does indeed include discrimination against Caucasians, such claims are generally held to a higher evidentiary standard because, not surprisingly, discrimination against majority groups is much more uncommon.

These housing programs are usually open to all who apply and represent a very small percentage of the comparable housing readily available, often within the same dormitory hall. We know nothing of the application and acceptance process.  Even were potentially discriminatory practices to come to light, it seems unlikely that this housing would pose a constitutional issue.

As has been seen with affirmative action in the past—including in the realm of housing—providing opportunities based on race can be acceptable where the purpose behind the policy is to offset previous and ongoing racial discrimination—something that undeniably exists for minorities in the realm of housing.  In fact, under HUD guidelines one could even argue that universities are required to make such safe-space housing available.

When it comes to fair housing generally, the issue essentially comes down to the terms, cost, and quality of the housing they provide. While most of the housing is open to all, housing such as UCONN’s is especially vulnerable to suit if the housing provided is not of comparable quality with other dorm halls.  What’s more, universities will need to be careful about steering.  Even well intentioned prodding towards racially-themed housing may well leave them vulnerable to a lawsuit.

It is important to be wary of any housing program which limits its services to such a narrow group of minorities. While creating safe spaces is indeed to be congratulated, it is crucial to keep an eye on the quality of the services and housing these programs offer.  It is a small step for such a program to move from safe spaces to segregation.



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