By: David Rowland and Sarah Bauman

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a wide-ranging opinion on pivotal ADA and EEOC jurisdictional issues, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in EEOC v. Geisinger Health, et al. called mostly strikes against the EEOC at the motion to dismiss stage, with two exceptions.  Most notably, the EEOC was permitted to pursue a claim under Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), a rarely utilized section of the ADA that prohibits “interference” with the exercise or enjoyment of any right granted or protected by the ADA.  This decision is a notable win for employers.  But the court’s willingness to entertain this rare claim past the pleadings stage renders this ruling an especially important read for companies faced with ADA litigation.   

Case Background

In Geisinger Health, the EEOC brought an enforcement action against various Geisinger entities on behalf of a former nurse of Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center, Rosemary Casterline, and other aggrieved former and current employees.  The EEOC alleges the Geisinger Defendants violated Title I of the ADA by discriminating against and failing to accommodate Casterline and others who took medical leave by requiring them to re-apply and compete for employment opportunities to return to work and requiring them to be the “most qualified” applicant.  For similar reasons, the EEOC additionally claims that Defendants retaliated against Casterline and other employees and interfered with their ADA rights, in violation of Title V.  The Defendants moved to dismiss on all counts.

The Court’s Decision

The court ruled in favor of Defendants on all but two issues.  As to those decided in favor of Geisinger, the court held that the EEOC: 1) failed to plead facts sufficient to allege that the various Geisinger entities were a single employer, thus requiring dismissal of four of the seven named Defendants; 2) failed to plausibly allege that Casterline was a qualified individual with a disability, thus eviscerating her individual claim and negating the EEOC’s effort to identify a “class;” 3) failed to sufficiently allege that otherwise untimely claims could move forward under a continuing violation theory, thus limiting claims to those occurring within the 300-day statutory window; and (4) failed to plead a causal connection between Casterline’s alleged protected activity and her termination or Geisinger’s failure to accommodate her, thus requiring dismissal of the EEOC’s ADA retaliation claim.

Though undoubtedly a homerun for employers (for the most part), perhaps most interesting are the issues that are now ripe for summary judgment. Specifically, the court permitted the EEOC to further pursue its claim under the anomalous ADA Title V, as well as its claim that Geisinger’s policy of hiring the most qualified applicants rather than simply reassigning disabled employees into positions for which they are qualified.  Regarding the latter, this legal issue is a hotly contested one across Circuit Courts.  The court deemed it premature to reject it on the pleadings, criticizing Geisinger’s reliance on only summary judgment cases as grounds for dismissal. 

As to the ADA Title V claim, the court first noted the “scant case law” on ADA interference claims pursued under Title V.  Indeed, the Third Circuit has not yet ruled on what a plaintiff must plead to state such a claim.  The court first recognized that courts in other Circuits utilize the test for anti-interference claims under the Fair Housing Act, and in turn, the Third Circuit has held that courts should give the word interference its dictionary definition, or the “act of meddling in or hampering an activity or process.”  Without explicitly holding that such a test should apply, the court found that the EEOC sufficiently pled that Geisinger interfered with Casterline’s rights under the ADA; “in particular,” the EEOC pleaded inter alia that Geisinger “create[d] and maintain[ed] records that associate negative tags or references, such as ‘litigation hold,’ with persons who have engaged in protected activity and/or those seeking a reasonable accommodation or putting [Geisinger] on notice that they need a reasonable accommodation.”  According to the court, the EEOC’s allegations raised an inference that Geisinger “meddles” when employees attempt to exercise their rights under the ADA. 

Implications For Employers

Overall, the decision is an important win for employers, and worthy of instant replay.  However, companies should take particular note of the court’s decision to uphold the ADA Title V claim.  Given its success in Geisinger Health—perhaps in part due to the underdeveloped nature of such claims—employers should celebrate this decision with caution.  Indeed, employers should be especially careful that their policies and practices cannot be construed as “meddling” when employees attempt to assert ADA-protected rights.