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ADA and Disability Law

Our colleagues Joshua A. Stein and Frank C. Morris, Jr., at Epstein Becker Green have a post on the Health Employment And Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “The U.S. Access-Board Releases Long-Awaited Final Accessible Medical Diagnostic Equipment Standards.”

Following is an excerpt:

As part of a flurry of activity in the final days of the Obama Administration, the U.S. the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the “Access Board”) has finally announced the release of its Accessibility Standards for Medical Diagnostic Equipment (the “MDE Standards”). Published in the Federal Register on Monday, January 9, 2017, the MDE Standards are a set of design criteria intended to provide individuals with disabilities access to medical diagnostic equipment such as examination tables and chairs (including those used for dental or optical exams), weight scales, radiological equipment, mammography equipment and other equipment used by health professionals for diagnostic purposes. …

Read the full post here.

Employers Under the Microscope: Is Change on the Horizon?

When: Tuesday, October 18, 2016 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Where: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing will focus on the latest developments in labor and employment law, including:

  • Latest Developments from the NLRB
  • Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce
  • ADA Website Compliance
  • Trade Secrets and Non-Competes
  • Managing and Administering Leave Policies
  • New Overtime Rules
  • Workplace Violence and Active-Shooter Situations
  • Recordings in the Workplace
  • Instilling Corporate Ethics

This year, we welcome Marc Freedman and Jim Plunkett from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Marc and Jim will speak at the first plenary session on the latest developments in Washington, D.C., that impact employers nationwide.

We are also excited to have Dr. David Weil, Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, serve as the guest speaker at the second plenary session. David will discuss the areas on which the Wage and Hour Division is focusing, including the new overtime rules.

In addition to workshop sessions led by attorneys at Epstein Becker Green – including some contributors to this blog! – we are also looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker, Former New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton.

View the full briefing agenda here.

Visit the briefing website for more information and to register, and contact Sylwia Faszczewska or Elizabeth Gannon with questions. Seating is limited.

In recent years, the use of wearable devices, such as smartwatches and Fitbits, has gained popularity not only with the general public and consumers but also among employers as a way to encourage workers to maintain healthier habits and, in turn, help reduce health care costs. Increasingly, companies are distributing wearable devices to employees as part of workplace wellness programs. According to one estimate, nearly half of employers that have a workplace wellness program use fitness trackers.[1] This trend shows little sign of abating. The data collected from these trackers—on such things as quality of sleep and activity level, for example—can be shared with health insurance companies, which may allow employers to negotiate lower insurance policy rates for their employees. Companies that have encouraged wearable fitness trackers have also realized other benefits, including decreased absenteeism and increased worker productivity.

Beyond wellness applications, employers around the globe are also using wearables to increase worker safety. One company in Australia, for example, has had its truck drivers wear “SmartCaps”[2] in an effort to reduce fatigue-related accidents. These hats resemble baseball caps but include built-in sensors that can detect driver alertness and provide a warning to drivers when their fatigue level begins to rise.

To be sure, the benefits of wearable devices, as well as the value of the data generated by them, cannot be ignored. Yet, despite the potential benefits of introducing wearables into the workplace, employers should be mindful of the potential legal pitfalls. Monitoring employees, whether during work or non-work hours, can expose employers to legal risks even if the monitoring is intended to promote employee wellness, improve business operations, or keep employees safe.

What Are the Legal Risks?

Several legal risks arise from the various health-related data that can be collected from these workplace wearables and used by employers. One key threat is that cybercriminals could hack into the servers of companies that sell fitness tracking wearables (and manage the associated mobile health apps) and access employees’ personal data. It is also possible that these companies could sell employees’ personal data to advertising companies or other third parties without employee knowledge.

In addition to data privacy and security concerns, antidiscrimination laws also represent an important risk for employers. For example, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), employers are prohibited from conducting a “medical examination” of employees unless the examination is “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”[3] A medical examination includes a procedure or test that seeks information about an employee’s physical or mental impairments or health. Because wearables today can measure various health metrics, such as heart rate and blood pressure, an employer’s rollout of wearables could unintentionally result in prohibited medical examinations under the ADA. While employers are permitted to conduct voluntary medical examinations as part of voluntary workplace wellness programs, provided that certain conditions are met, this is still an area in which employers should be cautious. Further, to the extent that wearables collect information about employees’ family medical history or other genetic information, employers may face liability under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”). Under GINA, it is illegal for employers to use genetic information in making employment decisions. Finally, employee monitoring, particularly with respect to GPS location, can also potentially run afoul of protections afforded by the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).

How Can Employers Mitigate the Risks of Using Wearables in the Workplace?

While the law in this area is in its nascent stage, before rolling out a wearables program, either as part of an overall wellness plan or independently, employers in all industries should do the following:

  • Although wearable technology is rapidly advancing and adopting novel methods of employee tracking and monitoring may be alluring, exercise particular caution when adopting novel tracking methods, regardless of how strong the underlying business, health, and/or safety justification may be.
  • Consider working with a third-party vendor to administer the workplace wellness program so that you receive information derived from employee wearables on an aggregate basis that does not individually identify data for any specific employee.
  • Ensure that there is a policy in place detailing how the technology will be used and the scope of information that will be collected. Also, consider obtaining employee consent related to data collection.
  • As the legal landscape surrounding workplace wearables evolves, closely track and monitor developments in applicable state and federal laws (including the ADA, GINA, and NLRA, among others) and revise your policies accordingly.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter “Five Trending Challenges Facing Employers in the Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Industry.”

[1] Patience Haggin, As Wearables in Workplace Spread, So Do Legal Concerns, The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/as-wearables-in-workplace-spread-so-do-legal-concerns-1457921550.

[2] Rio Tinto, Hi-Tech Cap Helps Coal & Allied Truck Drivers Work Smarter to Manage Fatigue (May 2013), http://www.riotinto.com/media/media-releases-237_8713.aspx.

[3] U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Enforcement Guidance: Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (2000), https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/guidance-inquiries.html.

Our colleagues Joshua Stein, co-chair of Epstein Becker Green’s ADA and Public Accommodations Group, and Stephen Strobach, Accessibility Specialist, have a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry:  “DOJ Refreshes Its Efforts to Promulgate Title II Website Accessibility Regulations and Other Accessible Technology Updates – What Does It All Suggest for Businesses?”

Following is an excerpt:

On April 28, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, withdrew its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) titled Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities.  This original initiative, which was commenced at the 20th Anniversary of the ADA in 2010, was expected to result in a final NPRM setting forth website accessibility regulations for state and local government entities later this year. Instead, citing a need to address the evolution and enhancement of technology (both with respect to web design and assistive technology for individuals with disabilities) and to collect more information on the costs and benefits associated with making websites accessible, DOJ “refreshed” its regulatory process and, instead, on May 9, 2016, published a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM) in the federal register. …

The questions posed in the SNPRM indicate that DOJ is considering many of the issues that Title III businesses have been forced to grapple with on their own in the face of the recent wave of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits commenced on behalf of private plaintiffs and advocacy groups.  It would be a positive development for any eventual government regulations to clearly speak to these issues.  Conversely, it may be even longer before we see final regulations for Title III entities. …

While most current settlement agreements regarding website accessibility focus on desktop websites, many businesses are anticipating that the next target for plaintiffs and advocacy groups will be their mobile websites and applications.  Such concern is well founded as recent DOJ settlement agreements addressing accessible technology have included modifications to both desktop websites and mobile applications.

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein, attorney at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “Recent Decisions Reinforce That Accessible Technology Claims Are Not Going Away.”

Following is an excerpt:

As businesses continue to compete to provide customers and guests with more attractive services and amenities, we have seen increased utilization of technology to provide those enhanced experiences.  However, in adopting and increasingly relying on new technologies such as websites, mobile applications, and touchscreen technology (e.g., point of sale devices, beverage dispensers, check-in kiosks) accessibility is often overlooked because of the lack of specific federal standards in most contexts. The two recent decisions discussed below – one in New York and the other in California – do just that.

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Frank C. Morris, Jr., attorney at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Financial Services Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “New Online Recruiting Accessibility Tool Could Help Forestall ADA Claims by Applicants With Disabilities.”

Following is an excerpt:

In recent years, employers have increasingly turned to web based recruiting technologies and online applications. For some potential job applicants, including individuals with disabilities, such as those who are blind or have low vision, online technologies for seeking positions can prove problematic. For example, some recruiting technologies and web-based job applications may not work for individuals with disabilities who use screen readers to access information on the web. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) recently announced the launch of “TalentWorks.”

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein has a Retail Labor and Employment Law Blog post that will be of interest to many of our technology industry readers: “Defending Against Website Accessibility Claims: Recent Decisions Suggest the Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine Is Unlikely to Serve As Businesses’ Silver Bullet.”

Following is an excerpt:

For businesses hoping to identify an avenue to quickly and definitively defeat the recent deluge of website accessibility claims brought by industrious plaintiff’s firms, advocacy groups, and government regulators in the initial stages of litigation, recent news out of the District of Massachusetts – rejecting technical/jurisdictional arguments raised by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – provides the latest roadblock. …

These recent decisions reveal a reluctance among the courts to dismiss website accessibility actions on technical/jurisdictional grounds.  Taken along with the expanding number of jurisdictions who subscribe to legal theories accepting that Title III covers website accessibility (whether adopting a nexus theory or broadly interpreting the spirit and purpose of the ADA) and it is becoming increasingly clear that many businesses will have a difficult time ridding themselves of website accessibility claims in the early stages of litigation.  Of course, these decisions have been quick to note they do not foreclose a variety of potentially successful defenses that may be asserted later in the litigation – e.g., undue burden, fundamental alteration, and the provision of equivalent/alternative means of access.  While, to date, the existing website accessibility case law has not focused on when these defenses might prevail, with the recent proliferation of website accessibility demand letters and litigation, businesses should soon find themselves with greater guidance from the courts.  In the interim, the best way to guard against potential website accessibility claims continues to be to take prophylactic measures to address compliance before you receive a demand letter, complaint, or notice of investigation.

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Frank C. Morris, Jr., a Member of the Firm in the Litigation and Employee Benefits practices, in the firm’s Washington, DC, office, was quoted in “Retaliation, ADA Charges Rise” by Allen Smith.  The article discusses the uptick in retaliation charges which have been filed and includes tips for employers on how to reduce the likelihood that they will get hit with those types of charges.

Following is an excerpt:

ADA cases today are more often about what took place in the interactive process for identifying a reasonable accommodation than about whether a disability is covered by the law. So, employers should have protocols in place on how to respond to accommodation requests and should document those efforts. This is “incredibly important” if there is litigation, Morris said.

If there is an agreement on an accommodation, put it in writing and have the employee sign the document, he recommended.

Remember that under the ADA, the accommodation obligation is ongoing. “Just because you’d done everything right in 2015 doesn’t mean you don’t need to do everything right in 2016,” he said. Things change, and the employer should be ready to start the accommodation conversation on fresh footing if the employee requests a new accommodation.

Joshua A. SteinFrustrating news has emerged from Washington D.C. as the recently-published federal government’s Fall Semiannual Regulatory Agenda revealed that the long-anticipated U.S. Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) for regulations governing website accessibility for places of public accommodation under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“Title III”) would not be issued in the Spring of 2016 as most recently anticipated and would instead be delayed until fiscal year 2018.  DOJ now intends to issue a NPRM governing website accessibility for state and local governments under Title II of the ADA in early 2016 and then hopes that that process will create the necessary infrastructure to develop and promulgate similar regulations for entities governed by Title III

Such news is particularly troubling given the recent surge in website accessibility actions brought against places of public accommodation and business establishments operating exclusively in cyberspace by private plaintiffs, advocacy groups, and regulators at the federal, state, and local levels.  Indeed, notwithstanding DOJ’s latest delay, there is no indication that the federal government intends to cease its quest to have places of public accommodation provide accessible websites.  Relying upon Title III’s overarching civil rights obligations – most importantly that places of public accommodation provide “full and equal enjoyment” of its goods, services, etc. – DOJ continues to seek website accessibility provisions as part of its settlement agreements with a wide variety of places of public accommodation.  DOJ has even gone so far as to file Statements of Interest in private litigations ongoing between both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Association of the Deaf in the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts opposing their efforts to have the lawsuits dismissed or stayed pending DOJ’s completion of the rulemaking process.  (3:15-CV-30023 (D.Mass) and 3:15-CV-30224 (D.Mass))

The limited number of judicial decisions addressing the applicability of Title III to the websites of places of public accommodation and online businesses do not provide a clear road map for businesses due to the existence of a split body of case law.  The current law falls along three primary lines:  (i) Title III’s application is limited to actual physical places and cannot apply to websites absent an amendment to Title III or the issuance of new regulations; (ii) Title III applies to websites when there is a nexus between a physical place of public accommodation and the goods and services offered on its website; and (iii) Title III applies to even online-only businesses because Title III must be read broadly to promote the ADA’s goal of allowing individuals with disabilities to fully and equally enjoy and participate in society and, therefore, it must evolve to apply to new technologies.  The limited body of case law to date has developed primarily in the preliminary motion to dismiss phase and, therefore, the viability of various potential affirmative defenses or what it means for a website to be accessible has not be sufficiently analyzed by the courts. 

Further complicating the landscape, since DOJ announced its previous delay of the regulations (then into April 2016) this past spring, businesses across most industries – including retail, hospitality, financial services, and sports and entertainment – have been deluged with demand letters from industrious plaintiffs’ firms seeking to take advantage of the regulatory uncertainty and limited case law.  Understanding that the costs of litigating a developing area of the law may prove significant and the return uncertain, many businesses are opting to reach amicable resolutions to these matters rather than explore more aggressive litigation positions.  To the extent others hoped that DOJ guidance would soon stem the tide of these demand letters, this most recent development is disheartening news.  Businesses hoping to avoid such letters are best served by taking prophylactic actions to address the accessibility of their websites.

For more on these issues see: 

http://www.hospitalitylaboremploymentlawblog.com/2015/06/articles/ada/doj-further-delays-release-of-highly-anticipated-proposed-website-accessibility-regulations-for-public-accommodations/

http://www.technologyemploymentlaw.com/ada-and-disability-law/access-board-seeks-to-revise-accessibility-standards-for-information-and-communications-technology-of-federal-agencies-and-certain-technology-manufacturers-moving-to-functionality-based-approach/

http://www.ebglaw.com/joshua-a-stein/news/key-issues-facing-places-of-public-accommodation-at-the-25th-anniversary-of-the-ada/

My colleague Nathaniel M. Glasser recently authored Epstein Becker Green’s Take 5 newsletter.   In this edition of Take 5, Nathaniel highlights five areas of enforcement that U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) continues to tout publicly and aggressively pursue.

  1. Religious Discrimination and Accommodation—EEOC Is Victorious in New U.S. Supreme Court Ruling
  2. Transgender Protections Under Title VII—EEOC Relies on Expanded Sex Discrimination Theories
  3. Systemic Investigations and Litigation—EEOC Gives Priority to Enforcement Initiative
  4. Narrowing the “Gender Pay Gap”—EEOC Files Suits Under the Equal Pay Act
  5. Background Checks—EEOC Seeks to Eliminate Barriers to Recruitment and Hiring

Read the Full Take 5 here.