Law Firm’s Two Offices May Bring It Under ADA in Job Bias

Watkins & Letofsky LLP may have had the 15 employees needed to trigger Americans with Disabilities Act coverage for an associate attorney in Nevada who sought a reduced schedule for health reasons, the Ninth Circuit ruled Thursday.

A lower court dismissed Amy Buchanan’s 2019 suit because the civil litigation firm’s Nevada office didn’t have 15 or more workers at the time. But the “integrated enterprise” test applies to ADA job discrimination cases and the lower court failed to consider whether Watkins & Letofsky collectively had at least 15 employees on its Nevada and California offices, the appeals court said.

The test, which it had previously recognized as applying under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, likewise applies under the ADA, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held on a question of first impression for the court.

The language and set up of Title VII and the ADA are in many ways identical, visiting Judge Kathryn H. Vratil of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas said. The circuit has long interpreted the ADA’s employment provisions consistent with interpretations of Title VII and it should do so as well with regard to how a plaintiff can meet the employee-numerosity requirement, she said.

A jury could find Buchanan’s evidence satisfies the four factors of the integrated enterprise test, the court said.

That Watkins & Letofsky’s two offices shared a toll-free phone number and a website, and that employees of both offices used the same email template footer could prove their operations were interrelated, Vratil said. So could the sharing of operational and administrative work, an IRS taxpayer identification number, and an employee roster across the two offices, the judge said.

The firm’s two namesakes were its only partners and they managed both offices, she said. That could establish the integrated enterprise theory’s common management and centralized control of labor relations factors, Vratil said.

The two partners’ status as Watkins & Letofsky’s sole owners could similarly meet the common financial control requirement, the Ninth Circuit said.

It reversed summary judgment for the firm and remanded the case for the lower court to assess whether Watkins & Letofsky had 15 or more employees across the two offices.

Judges M. Margaret McKeown and William A. Fletcher joined the opinion.

Kemp & Kemp represents Buchanan. Watkins & Letofsky represents itself.

The case is Buchanan v. Watkins & Letofsky, LLP, 9th Cir., No. 21-15633, 4/7/22.