9th Circuit Reverses Dismissal of NASA Scientist’s Disability-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim

In Mattioda v. Nelson, 2024 WL 1710665 (9th Cir. April 22, 2024), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, inter alia, held that plaintiff (a NASA employee) plausibly alleged a disability-based hostile work environment claim in violation of the Retaliation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq.

In sum, plaintiff – who has physical disabilities related to his hips and spine that he alleges require him to purchase premium-class airlines tickets for flights over an hour long – alleged, among other things, “that he suffered a hostile work environment after informing his supervisors of his disabilities and requesting upgraded airline tickets for work travel as a reasonable accommodation and that he was discriminated against due to his disability by being passed over for a promotion.”

After summarizing the black-letter law, the court applied it to the facts as follows:

Here, Dr. Mattioda has alleged sufficiently severe or pervasive harassment to survive NASA’s motion to dismiss.7 Similar to El-Hakem, Ray, and Zetwick, Dr. Mattioda alleges that Dr. Lee inhibited Dr. Mattioda’s work opportunities and repeatedly made harassing and derogatory comments over a period of years, and he has described several specific examples. Dr. Mattioda further alleges, among other conduct, that Dr. Dotson vaguely threatened his job, demeaned him by making him sign a letter acknowledging Dr. Dotson’s refusal to reconsider Dr. Mattioda’s poor performance rating, and made insulting comments about his reasonable-accommodation requests and job performance. While neither the severity nor the frequency of the alleged offensive conduct alone indicates that the hostile-work-environment standard obviously is satisfied, see, e.g., Kortan, 217 F.3d at 1110–11, Dr. Mattioda’s allegations do indicate that the “severity of frequent abuse is questionable” such that “it is more appropriate to leave the assessment to the fact-finder.”

Accordingly, the court reversed the lower court’s decision dismissing plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.

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