Yesterday, I provided some highlights about the important case of Curry v. Allan S. Goodman, Inc. (can we all just agree to call it Curry v. Goodman?) The case is the first appellate decision in Connecticut that applies the reasonable accommodation provisions found in federal law, to state law. The effect is that small employers in the state (3-14 employees) will now have an obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation to physically disabled employees.
So, how did the court get there? I’ll explore in detail in today’s post. It’s a little technical but for employment lawyers in Connecticut, the logic is key to understanding the result.
Before I get there, though, I urge you to review the comments of yesterday’s post in which Charles Krich, who submitted an amicus brief in the case, provided some further insights into the case. Very informative and I hope to address it further shortly.
First, the Supreme Court relied in an "agency deference" doctrine, similar to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Chevron deference rulings.
[T]he question has been addressed by the commission on human rights and opportunities (commission), which, pursuant to General Statutes §§ 46a-54 and 46a- 56, is charged with effectuating the provisions of the act. We traditionally have accorded deference to the time-tested interpretation of an agency charged with enforcing the provisions of a statute, provided that ‘‘the agency’s interpretation has been formally articulated and applied for an extended period of time, and that interpretation is reasonable.
The Court goes on to note that the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) has "consistently interpreted" Conn. Gen. Stat. 46a-60 to include a duty to provide a reasonable accommodation for 12 years. The Court then notes that various Superior Court cases have also followed this rule.
However, the Court then adds that this does not end the inquiry. Rather, the Court must then determine if the CHRO’s interpretation is "reasonable". In doing so, the Court applied its rules of statutory construction.
Now, those who have been in Connecticut for a while, know that in 2003 the legislature passed Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-2z to make sure that the language of the statute is examined first. That statute states:
The meaning of a statute shall, in the first instance, be ascertained from the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered.
But, even though the statute contains no duty to provide reasonable accommodation, the Court does not find that to be an impediment.
When . . . a statutory provision is silent with respect to [the issue at hand], our analysis is not limited by . . . § 1-2z, which provides that the meaning of statutes shall be ascertained from only their text and their relationship to other statutes if those sources reveal an unambiguous meaning that is not absurd or unworkable. … In addition to the words of the statute itself, ‘we look to . . . the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter.
The Court also notes that federal anti-discrimination statute (and cases interpreting them) are also a proper resource for it. Although the statute "admits" that there is no reference to reasonable accommodation in the statute, the Court looks further to see if this would be an unworkable result. The court first looks at language regarding a BFOQ.
[The statute] does include a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) defense to discrimination—i.e., ‘‘except in the case of a [BFOQ] or need . . . .’’ General Statutes § 46a-60 (a) (1)… We therefore first consider the meaning of a BFOQ, namely, whether such qualification may be interpreted as either coextensive, or inconsistent, with a reasonable accommodation requirement for individuals with physical disabilities. As the court previously has recognized, a BFOQ is an all or nothing proposition that legitimately links the qualifications of the job directly to a protected traitunder the statute, thereby categorically excluding individuals in the protected class. …
We determine then that the BFOQ defense and the duty of reasonable accommodation for employers of individuals with disabilities are neither
coextensive nor inconsistent. The statutory text does not speak to a duty of reasonable accommodation or other similar requirement. Nothing in the previous discussion, however, demonstrates that, by including a BFOQ defense, the legislature disclaimed a duty of reasonable accommodation.
Given its discounting of the BFOQ defense, the court then notes that it should look to other sources to determine the "intent" of the legislature. The court notes some discussion in 1973 that suggests that the statute was intended to be broad and protect disabled people who are otherwise qualified for a job. And the Court looks to other statutes passed by the legislature over the years that show its strong concern for protecting those with disabilities.
And last, the court notes — perhaps in an effort to justify its broad reading of the statute — that other states have also imposed a reasonable accommodation, including some by "judicial gloss". The Court therefore finds that the CHRO’s interpretation is a reasonable one.
In upcoming posts, I’ll look at the facts of the case, and the effect of this case on other disabilities. An interesting unanswered question is whether this would also apply to those with learning disabilities (which is a protected class in Connecticut). Stay tuned.