Sixth Circuit Confirms No Vicarious Liability for Section 504 and Title II ADA Claims
Few non-lawyers can define the legal doctrines of vicariously liability and respondeat superior. But most are familiar with how they work. For example, if a person is injured by an employee of another company the company is also liable for the injury. This is true for most but not all claims, as the Sixth Circuit recently discussed in Jones v City of Detroit, Case No. 21-1055 (December 21, 2021).
Jones concerned, among other things, claims for disability discrimination brought under Section 504 of the Civil Rights Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title II ADA). The plaintiff, who was in a wheelchair, was arrested during a demonstration. He was allegedly injured during the arrest and brought vicarious liability claims under Section 504 and Title II ADA against the supervisors of the arresting officers and their common employer, the City of Detroit. Plaintiff alleged the supervisors and the City were vicariously liable for his injuries under the doctrine respondeat superior. The trial court dismissed these claims and the Sixth Circuit affirmed on the grounds vicarious liability claims are not permitted under Section 504 and Title II ADA.
The method by which the Court reached this conclusion makes for interesting reading for civil rights lawyers. However, from a bottom-line perspective, the Sixth Circuit held that supervisors and their joint employers are not liable unless the plaintiff pleads and proves they were deliberately indifferent to disability discrimination. This means, in most cases, a plaintiff will need to show that supervisors or others were aware of the disability discrimination, had the authority to do something about it, but chose not to. Interestingly, due to technical differences between Title II ADA and Title I ADA (which prohibits employment discrimination based on disability), vicarious liability claims under Title I are viable. So, a plaintiff who is the victim of disability discrimination on the job may still seek to impose vicarious liability on his or her employer.