University of Pennsylvania Police Officer Prevails in Appeal Over Shaving His Beard

It’s been more than a year since University of Pennsylvania police officer Joseph Lewis lost his lawsuit against the school, but fortunately that was not the end of his story.

The case centered on a requirement imposed by the university’s police department that its officers all be clean shaven. Mr. Lewis suffers from a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae, common among black men, which leaves him with razor bumps that are at high risk for infection. Lewis had reportedly requested a disability accommodation that would allow him to grow a beard instead of shaving, but claimed that instead of being granted that accommodation he was faced with discrimination and retaliation: his supervisors removed him from his normal assignment and denied him vacation time, and they and his colleagues began ridiculing him for failing to shave.

After being placed on leave, Lewis eventually resigned, then filed a lawsuit charging the school with creating a hostile work environment. When the trial produced a defense verdict, he pursued a claim of constructive discharge, violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and discrimination for failure to provide reasonable accommodations for his medical condition, as well as further refusing to accommodate him by exempting him from a requirement to provide a medical certificate every 60 days.. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed his claim, but now the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has reinstated it. This means that Lewis will have a jury trial where he can argue that his rights had been violated and that the school failed to make a reasonable accommodation of his condition.

The Third Circuit ruled that the proper standard of law had not been applied in the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case. Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote, “Even if Penn did act in good faith, it is for the jury to decide whether permanently exempting Lewis from both shaving and the certification requirement would have been a reasonable accommodation.” Beyond its decision that the case should be heard by a jury, the Appeals Court also instructed the district court to consider the legitimacy of the school’s 60-day requirement, pointing to the fact that the ADA specifically prohibits medical examinations and inquiries unless a business reason can be provided.

Mr. Lewis’ case addressed violations of the federal law known as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In the state of New Jersey, employees who face workplace discrimination based on a medical condition are able to pursue justice under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which similarly prohibits employers from engaging in disability discrimination. The NJLAD states that “if you are qualified for the job and you can do all the essential things that the job requires, then you should not be excluded or be considered less qualified than other people who have the same relevant education, training, certifications, licenses and work experience that you have.” It further requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations, and prohibits employers from asking employees to take a medical exam because of a disability.

If you believe that you have been the victim of employment discrimination based on a disability or as a result of being a member of another protected class, we can help. Contact us today to set up a time to discuss your situation.

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