April 03, 2020

Employer's blanket exclusions from the court officer-trainee job title based on hearing loss or the use of hearing aids rejected


The Appellate Division sustained the decision of the New York State Division of Human Rights (DHR), which adopted the recommended order of the Administrative Law Judge, and determined, following a hearing, that the New York State Unified Court System, Office of Court Administration (OCA) unlawfully discriminated against an individual [Complainant] based on a disability. OCA was directed to cease and desist from subjecting individuals to blanket exclusions from the court officer-trainee job title based on hearing loss or the use of hearing aids and, in addition, to pay a civil fine and penalty of $30,000, and to pay Complainant $5,000 in compensatory damages.

The court found that Commissioner's finding of discrimination was supported by substantial evidence. Complainant, a per diem court interpreter for OCA in its courts and in other courts, established a prima facie case that OCA discriminated against him on account of his disability of some hearing loss in his right ear as Complainant had "sufficiently demonstrated that upon the provision of reasonable accommodation, namely, a hearing aid, he can perform in a reasonable manner the essential functions of a court officer-trainee."

The Appellate Division explained that permitting court officers to wear a hearing aid is a reasonable accommodation, rejecting OCA argument that permitting court officers to wear a hearing aid would "impose undue hardship on OCA by posing a "direct threat," i.e. "a significant risk of substantial harm to the . . . safety of the employee or others."

OCA, said the court, had speculated that there was a risk that a hearing aid could become dislodged in a scuffle or fail to operate in an emergency. The court observed that "OCA's argument is undermined by its own policy permitting court officer-trainee candidates to meet its vision standard with or without corrective lenses or glasses, which could be lost or become dislodged in a scuffle."

An individual may be denied employment because of a disability only if that condition will prevent him from performing in a reasonable manner the activities involved in the job or occupation sought, based on an individualized assessment of the specific individual. The Appellate Division's opinion  notes that absent in this case was a sufficiently individualized assessment "nor does OCA's formula take into account the ability of someone with asymmetrical hearing loss to perform the essential functions of a court officer-trainee."

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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