In Meade v. Shangri-la, a closely-divided Maryland Court of Appeals reinstated a jury verdict that awarded damages against a Howard County Montessori School, in favor of a parent with a latex allergy who requested that the school cease using powdered-latex gloves when changing student diapers. The jury found that the School discriminated against the parent, when the school administrator requested that the parent withdraw her child from the school after the parent disputed the school’s rejection of her request.
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At trial, the Plaintiff argued that as a result of a severe allergy to latex, she requested that the school stop using latex gloves. After presenting the issue to the school administrator, the administrator initially indicated he would review the issue, but ultimately decided not to switch away from latex gloves since the school did not wish to switch suppliers. The administrator further explained that in an effort to accommodate the Plaintiff, he ordered staff members not to use powdered latex gloves on Plaintiff’s son and to allow Plaintiff to pick up her son at the school’s front desk so that Plaintiff did not have to venture further into the school to pick up her son.
Plaintiff followed up seeking a glove change once more so that Plaintiff would be allowed full access to the building and “be a part of [her] son’s preschool experience.” The administrator, who testified he feared litigation, responded with a request that Plaintiff withdraw her son from the school citing a clause in the school’s contract that essentially allowed the school to ask any pupil to withdraw for any reason.
At trial, the jury found in favor of Plaintiff finding that Plaintiff’s latex allergy was a physical impairment which substantially limited one or more of her major life activities and that the school denied her accommodations because of discrimination. She was awarded $1,683 in economic damages, $5,000 in non-economic damages, and $22,800 in attorney’s fees.
The Plaintiff’s law suit was based on a State statute and the Howard County Code, as opposed to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). While the ADA, state, and county statutes may seem similar on their face in their efforts to avoid discrimination and promote reasonable accommodations to those with disabilities, the Howard County Code purports to address discrimination because of a “handicap,” while the Americans with Disabilities Act addresses “disabilities.”
While most may not see a significant distinction, the Court of Appeals found the difference between and disability and handicap significant because “disabilities,” as used in the ADA has been strictly construed by federal courts, including the Supreme Court, to require a demanding standard. The Court of Special Appeals held that applying this federal standard, no reasonable jury could consider Plaintiff’s latex allergy met the federal standard.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with the Court of Special Appeals’ analysis, however, holding that the term “handicap” is not the same as the word “disability.” As defined by the Howard County Code, handicap means (a) a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of the individual’s major life activities; or (b) having such an impairment; or (c) being regarded as having such an impairment.
The Court held that while there is similarity between the wording of the Howard County Code provisions, there are significant differences. For example, the Howard County Code states that words and phrases shall “have their usual meaning.” Based on this, the Court held that the jury properly found that Plaintiff’s latex allergy was an impairment that substantially limited Plaintiff’s socialization, parenting and interaction with her son’s education.
In a strongly worded dissent, three Court of Appeals judges expressed their disapproval of the Majority’s perceived uncritical approach to disability claims, arguing that it creates worrisome precedent, without giving needed guidance. Using a series of examples, the dissent argues that clarification of “major life activities” and “substantial limitation” should come from the Court and not be decided on a jury-by-jury basis.
The Court’s Decision can be found at Meade v. Shangri-La Partnership, 2012 Md. Lexis 63 (2012).