Reindeer co-workers harassed Rudolph on the basis of a perceived disability, and Santa failed to take prompt corrective action to stop the harassing behavior.
Today, the Cleveland law firm of Bolek Besser Glesius LLC filed a disability discrimination lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of the North Pole against Kristopher Kringle, Inc. (A/K/A “Santa Claus”) on behalf of Rudolph “the Red-Nosed” Reindeer. Filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. (“ADA”), the lawsuit alleges that Rudolph’s co-workers illegally subjected him to harassment because they incorrectly regarded him as having a disability.
Santa turns a blind eye to harassment perpetrated against a key employee
Rudolph Reindeer was born with cosmetic disfigurement, to wit, a very shiny nose. In fact, people who saw it would even say it glows. Since 1939, Rudolph has worked as a toy delivery technician at Santa’s North Pole-based factory. Unfortunately for Rudolph, all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names because of his nose, the most egregious of which was “the Red-Nosed”—a moniker so frequently used that many now believe it is Rudolph’s given middle name. “They never let poor me join in any reindeer games,” Rudolph alleges in his Complaint. This harassment was severe, pervasive, and based on his co-workers’ mistaken belief that he has some manner of olfactory disability.
The persistent harassment was engaged in by each of Rudolph’s four-legged co-workers, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and even Blitzen. When the harassment became unbearable, Rudolph complained to Santa’s Director of Human Resources, E.L. Fudge, who gave Rudolph a delicious cookie, but took no action against the harassers. When the harassment continued, Rudolph complained directly to Santa himself that his co-workers were being naughty rather than nice, but received only a glib and dismissive “Ho Ho Ho” in response.
Because of Santa’s failure to take corrective action, the harassment based on Rudolph’s perceived disability continued for many years, until one foggy Christmas Eve, during which the headlights on Santa’s sleigh were broken. At or about that time, the lawsuit alleges, Santa came to say, “Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” It was only then that the other reindeer loved him and/or shouted out his name with glee.
While Rudolph has since gone down in history, the years of harassment he endured caused severe emotional distress, including, but not limited to, visions of sugarplums dancing in his head and nightmares about being a crude, stop-motion animated reindeer. Because of his pain and suffering, Rudolph has required treatment from renowned therapist Dr. Frost E. Snowman of Olaf & Associates, which included “warm hug” therapy as well as a slew of powerful anti-psychotics.
Standing up to disability harassment at the North Pole
The lawsuit filed today alleges that Rudolph was illegally harassed under the ADA on the basis of a perceived disability. Most lawsuits under the ADA are brought by employees claiming to have an actual disability, defined as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A). The ADA, however, also protects individuals, reindeer, and other festive employees who do not have an actual disability, but who have a history (or “record”) of a disability or are mistakenly “regarded as” having a disability by the employer. Id. at § 12102(1)(B,C).
In this lawsuit, Rudolph is not claiming he has an actual disability under the ADA. Although a cosmetic disfigurement such as Rudolph’s qualifies as an “impairment,” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)(1), it does not substantially limit any of his major life activities. Rudolph’s sense of smell is unaffected, and in fact, his glowing nose gives him a distinct advantage guiding Santa’s sleigh at night during inclement weather—an essential function of the toy delivery technician job. Instead, Rudolph’s disability discrimination claim is under the ADA’s “regarded as” prong.
Harassment is one type of illegal disability discrimination under the ADA. Unlawful harassment might take many forms, for example, offensive remarks about an employee’s disability or nasal luminescence. Simple teasing, offhand remarks, or isolated incidents will typically not give rise to a cause of action. But when unwelcome harassment is so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile work environment and unreasonably interferes with the employee’s job performance, it is against the law. The jolly old employer will then be liable for the harassment if it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take corrective measures.
In pre-suit discussions, Santa claimed that the ADA does not apply to him because he is not an “employer” under the Act. That argument falls flatter than a reindeer on roller skates. The ADA defines an employer as “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has 15 or more employees for each working day in each of 20 or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year. . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(5)(A). Santa has a near-monopoly on the Christmas toy business, a multi-billion dollar industry. Upon information and belief, he employs 9 reindeer and thousands of elves, the latter of whom toil 364 days a year making toys for 20 hours a day. (A group of elves recently filed an overtime class action lawsuit against Santa under the Fair Labor Standards Act and North Pole wage and hour law). Santa is therefore an “employer” under the ADA and subject to its anti-discrimination rules. What’s more, Santa is estopped from making any related argument that he is not covered by the ADA because he is fictional, as that issue was conclusively resolved by New York Supreme Court Judge Henry X. Harper in the case of Macy’s on 34th Street v. Kristopher Kringle (1947).
Protecting the rights of employees (even four-legged ones) to be judged on their abilities, not stereotypes
By bringing suit, Rudolph intends to send the message that employees should be judged on their actual abilities, rather than on myths, fears, or stereotypes associated with disabilities—an important lesson year-round. The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages for his pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages and attorney fees, all in excess of 25,000 candy canes.
The Cleveland employment discrimination attorneys at Bolek Besser Glesius LLC have represented many employees like Rudolph who faced disability discrimination in the workplace. We are proud to represent him in this important case, even though we do not typically practice in the North Pole (and will have to seek admission pro hac vice).