Court Finds Odor Sensitivity May Be Disability under ADAAA

Randi Klein Hyatt
Randi Klein Hyatt

It seems like even the most minor ailment can make an employee “disabled” under the ADA these days.  For example, in 2010, the City of Detroit paid $100,000 to settle an accommodation claim raised by a “chemically sensitive” city worker who alleged that a coworker’s perfume and room deodorizer caused her to experience migraines, nausea and coughing.  McBride v. City of Detroit, No. 2:07-cv-12794 (E.D. Mich. 2010).  Last week, an Illinois Federal court continued this trend by  holding that an employee with alleged extreme sensitivity to perfumes and other related scented products can advance her ADA claims.  Mitter v. Cnty. of DuPage, No. 1:13-cv-00841 (N.D. Ill., Nov. 7, 2013).

A registered nurse, Hannah Mitter, worked for the sheriff’s office at the DuPage County, Illinois jail from February 2001 to May 2011.  Beginning in June 2008, Mitter claimed to suffer extreme dizziness, breathing difficulties, headaches, increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, floaters and light in her vision of sight, facial swelling and burning, and itchy and watery eyes, allegedly in reaction to perfumes, colognes, chemicals and other scented substances and objects in her workplace.  Mitter asked the sheriff’s office to accommodate her alleged disability.  The sheriff’s office did nothing.

Mitter also alleges that in or around June 2010, the jail’s dentist, Dr. Blain Cusack, purposefully began using dental products with strong odors, leaving open bottles of bleach in his office, spraying his office with fragrance, leaving doors open, and leaving chemical-soaked paper towels throughout the office to torment Mitter.  He even allegedly called Mitter “psycho” for having allergies, made animal noises at her in the hallway and told her to see a psychiatrist.

Mitter’s reports to the sheriff’s office continued, and she repeatedly requested accommodations.  Mitter also provided a doctor’s note.  In response, she was allegedly told to look for another job.  The sheriff’s office never conducted an investigation, but Dr. Cusack was asked to keep his office door closed.  He allegedly complied for only one week.

In May 2011, Mitter was terminated for admittedly administering an incorrect medication to a patient.  While the sheriff’s office provided as grounds for her discharge her medication error, her alleged profanity when she realized her error, and her alleged refusal to care for an inmate, Mitter claimed that she was fired for her alleged disability (among other things).  She eventually filed suit against Dupage County, Dr. Cusack, the sheriff’s office, and the sheriff.

The court denied the Defendants’ motion to dismiss Mitter’s claims under the ADAAA.  The court held that the sheriff’s office may be found liable for disability discrimination because Dr. Cusack allegedly planted strongly perfumed objects around the office in response to Mitter’s alleged extreme sensitivity to such chemicals.  But for Dr. Cusack’s alleged malicious activity, Mitter’s ADAAA claims may not have survived dismissal.

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