Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Meade v. Shangri-La Partnership (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: January 26, 2012
Opinion by Judge John C. Eldridge

Held: A plaintiff with a latex allergy proffered enough evidence of discrimination because of a "handicap" under the Maryland code by showing that her son's school declined her request that it use non-latex products so she could enter the school safely and that the school asked her to withdraw her son when she threatened litigation.

Facts: A plaintiff with a latex allergy asked her son's school to switch from latex gloves to non-latex gloves for changing diapers so that she could safely enter the school. The school declined. In response, the plaintiff sent a letter to the school stating that she had rights and asking the school not to deny her of her rights. The school replied by asking the plaintiff to withdraw her son, stating that it did not wish to be exposed to litigation from the plaintiff.

The plaintiff sued the school for discrimination on the basis of a handicap in violation of Maryland Code Article 49B and the Howard County Code. The plaintiff claimed that the latex allergy was a "handicap" under the county code and that the school refused to make reasonable accommodations and then retaliated against her for complaining.

The plaintiff won a jury verdict in the circuit court, and the defendant appealed. The Court of Special Appeals reversed, holding that the term "handicap" should be construed to establish a demanding standard. The Court of Special Appeals held that there was no evidence to support a finding that the plaintiff's allergy prevented or severely restricted a major life activity. Accordingly, she was not handicapped. The plaintiff then appealed.

Analysis: At the Court of Appeals, the plaintiff argued that it was error to construe the term "handicap" to create a demanding standard. The Court of Appeals agreed, and it reversed the Court of Special Appeals.

The Court noted that "handicap" is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits on or more major life activity. The Court held that these phrases must be given their "usual meaning." Using this standard, the Court held that there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could conclude the plaintiff had shown an substantial impairment to a major life activity - her ability to socialize and interact with her son at school.

The Court expressly rejected a "demanding standard" and said that actions like the plaintiff's are to be liberally construed in favor of the person claiming to be the victim.

Dissent: In dissent, Judge Adkins cautioned that such an open-ended, uncritical approach to disability claims created a worrisome precedent without giving sufficient guidelines other than the doctrine advising liberal interpretation of remedial legislation. She pointed out that the opinion gives no standards on how to determine what constitutes a "substantial limitation" or a "major life activity." Because of this, the plaintiff's claim, and future plaintiff's claims, are not subject to any rigorous legal standard other than a jury's opinion.

Judge Adkins noted that claimants and the businesses they sue will "have virtually no standard for differentiating acceptable and unacceptable conduct in terms of dealing with people's differences in health status." She stated that the Court "should consider the extensive litigation spawned by the almost identical ADA, much of it based on non-qualifying claims."

The full opinion is available in PDF.