With strong and bipartisan support, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law on July 26, 1990. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees absent an undue hardship. As President Bush explained, “This act is powerful in its simplicity. It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.”
Despite the longstanding history of the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are still failing to follow the law. In 2014, Alina Sorling, a veteran food service technician with over a decade of experience at Dignity Health’s hospital cafeteria, suddenly became blind. Ms. Sorling went on medical leave and successfully worked with the California Department of Rehabilitation to re-master everyday tasks, including using nonvisual techniques for cooking and proficiency with knives and hot grills. Instead of allowing her to work, Dignity Health fired her because it believed a blind person could not safely work in a kitchen.
Ms. Sorling, like so many others President Bush celebrated in his remarks in 1990, is part of “a tremendous pool of people who will bring to jobs diversity, loyalty, proven low turnover rate, and only one request: the chance to prove themselves.”
Ms. Sorling was not given this chance to prove herself.
Dignity Health made assumptions about safety and her capacity, citing a vision requirement and test they had never previously administered and unilaterally rejecting the wide variety of possible accommodations that would allow her to do her job, many of which could be provided either by Ms. Sorling or by the California Department of Rehabilitation. As EEOC Trial Attorney Ami Sanghvi explains, the ADA “requires a two-way interactive process between the employer and employee.” Dignity Health, however, turned down the options Ms. Sorling tried to present to them, “and instead chose to fire her based on her impairment and an unjustifiable vision standard.”
Today, twenty-eight years after the ADA became law, TRE Legal Practice and LaBarre Law Offices have joined the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in a lawsuit to enforce this landmark civil-rights law’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability and to protect Ms. Sorling and others like her from discriminatory and unlawful treatment. The National Federation of the Blind, which defends the rights of blind people of all ages, is lending its support and expertise to aid the litigation.
Citing violations of the federal ADA, the EEOC’s lawsuit (see the EEOC v. Dignity Health Complaint) seeks lost wages and expenses, front pay, compensatory and punitive damages, and injunctive relief designed to prevent similar unlawful discrimination in the future.
TRE Legal Practice and LaBarre Law Offices, directly representing Ms. Sorling, have joined the EEOC’s lawsuit (see Alina Sorling’s Complaint in Intervention), pointing to violations of the federal ADA and the federal Rehabilitation Act, as well as California laws like the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which similarly prohibits employment discrimination, California’s Unfair Business Practices Act, and California’s public policy more generally. Ms. Sorling’s lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, compensatory, general, and punitive damages, reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, as well as other appropriate relief as determined by the court, for Dignity Health’s violations of her rights.
Dignity Health is headquartered in San Francisco. The largest hospital provider in California, it operates Mercy Medical Center in Redding, California, where Ms. Sorling worked for ten years before being fired because of false assumptions about her blindness.
The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. In the words of EEOC Trial Attorney Ami Sanghvi, the agency “is empowered and proud to fight for the rights of people like Alina Sorling.” More information is available at www.eeoc.gov.
For more on the case, see: