Can a City Agency Refuse to Hire You Based on a Perceived Disability?

There are a number of laws on the books designed to protect New Yorkers from disability discrimination. One such law is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Act specifically prohibits a federal agency, federal contractor, or any organization receiving financial assistance from the federal government from discriminating against an employee or job applicant “solely by reason of his or her disability.”

Federal Judge Allows Rehabilitation Act Lawsuit Against MTA to Proceed

There are four basic elements of a Rehabilitation Act claim:

  1. The plaintiff is an individual with a “disability” as defined by the Act.
  2. Despite the disability, the plaintiff was “otherwise qualified” for the job in question.
  3. The plaintiff suffered an “adverse employment action” on account of their disability.
  4. The program sponsoring the job in question received federal funding.

To illustrate how these elements apply in practice, a federal judge in Manhattan recently denied a motion to dismiss a Rehabilitation Act claim filed against the MTA. The plaintiff applied for a job as a train operator in 2009. This is a civil service position that requires an examination, which the plaintiff took and passed.

In 2013, the plaintiff was convicted of a drug-related crime and ordered into a six-month treatment program, which he successfully completed in 2015. The following year, he began the “pre-employment process” for obtaining a train operator's position. This required a drug test, which the plaintiff passed. The plaintiff also disclosed his prior conviction to the MTA during an interview, although he was not asked specifically about whether he continued to use drugs.

The plaintiff continued to advance through the pre-employment process. He finally received a conditional employment offer in March 2017, but he ultimately failed to obtain the necessary medical clearance. According to the plaintiff, he was told that had he “not been required to attend an unnecessary drug rehabilitation program,” he would have been hired.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the MTA. In rejecting the MTA's motion to dismiss, the judge overseeing the case said at this stage of the litigation, the plaintiff successfully established the four required elements of a Rehabilitation Act claim. What is notable here is the plaintiff did not have a “disability” as such; rather the alleged discrimination was based on the “perception” the plaintiff was a recovering drug addict.

The judge noted there was no question the plaintiff was qualified for the train operator's position–he passed the civil service test–or that he sustained an “adverse action” based on his perceived disability. As the MTA itself acknowledged it receives federal funding, it was clearly covered by the Rehabilitation Act. The judge, therefore, held the plaintiff presented a “plausible claim,” allowing the case to proceed to discovery.

Speak with a New York City Disability Discrimination Lawyer Today

It is bad enough when employers illegally discriminate against job applicants based on actual disability. It is worse when that discrimination is rooted in a mistaken perception of someone's disability. If you have been unfairly denied a job for any reason and need legal advice on what steps to take from an experienced New York City employment attorney, contact the Nisar Law Group, P.C.

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