A lawsuit filed in Indianapolis federal court in December 2017 alleges that a woman working for the magistrate court was wrongfully terminated. Amber Bridges used air fresheners to solve the problem of someone else's body odor, but she may have unknowingly created a legal conundrum regarding a protected disability in the workplace.
Bridges was a team lead employed from 2010 to May 2017. She decided to use air fresheners and encouraged other employees to do so because of a co-worker's body odor. The co-worker complained and alleged that Bridges created a hostile work environment. The hostile work environment had nothing to do with rudeness but instead had to do with Bridges supposedly discriminating against and singling out one particular employee.
Bridges is suing the city of Indianapolis because she claims she was fired due to her association with an individual with a protected disability. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, someone with a disability should receive a reasonable accommodation to work.
What Is a Protected Disability?
A protected disability is one in which an employee deserves accommodation at the workplace due to having a history of a substantial impairment that limits a major life activity. This activity could be hearing, speaking, talking, walking or performing manual tasks. A workplace must accommodate someone with a disability, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The EEOC does regard foul odor as a protected disability, but it's unclear if the person in the lawsuit has such a disability. Bridges claims she was discriminated against because the workplace did not make a reasonable accommodation for the person with the odor problem.
What Should Have Happened Before the Lawsuit?
Complaints of the co-worker's odor started in December 2016, and the smelly employee filed a complaint against Bridges in May 2017. Instead of taking matters into her own hands with air fresheners and creating a hostile work environment, Bridges should have gone to human resources to resolve the matter. HR staffers would have delicately talked to the employee about a reasonable accommodation through a back-and-forth negotiation.
HR could also find out if the employee has a physical limitation or if the odor simply came from bad hygiene. Air fresheners, as suggested by Bridges, could be a part of the solution but not the only one. The employee might work in an office with air purifiers or take a position that limits contact with people. A private office might be a reasonable accommodation if the person doesn't have to maintain regular contact with the public.
No matter how the lawsuit turns out, Bridges had a negative attitude that caused a rift in the workplace. Rather than handle it through official channels, Bridges became passive-aggressive by using air fresheners instead of having conversations. The attitude led to poor team morale, and now the magistrate court must endure a lengthy litigation process in federal court.
The EEOC does consider a person's foul odor as a protected disability, but Bridges would have to prove that her former co-worker does have that disability. Lawsuits alleging discrimination based on another person's disability are actually common when people seek protections from termination due to companies not following procedures.
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