Can coworkers’ scented products create a hostile work environment for an employee with chemical sensitivity?


Elda, one of your employees, began having reactions to smells in the workplace — including odors from perfumes, food items, and scented cleaning supplies — and requested as an accommodation a scent-free workspace. After confirming her medical condition with her doctors, you granted her request and directed her coworkers not to wear perfumes or colognes. Some continued to do so, however. For example, her own supervisor wore perfume at the office, allowed employees to eat lunch in a conference room near Elda’s cubicle even though she was bothered by the food odors, and threatened discipline after the employee objected to fragrances. Elda sued, claiming she was subjected to a hostile work environment (HWE) in violation of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Will she be successful?


Probably not. In a case with similar facts, a district court in Illinois reasoned that while the Seventh Circuit has not recognized the existence of HWE claims under the ADA, the similarity in statutory language between the ADA and Title VII, along with the widely accepted notion that a hostile work environment constitutes a form of discrimination, suggested that the claim does exist under the ADA. However, even assuming that the cause of action exists, the employee failed to state a valid claim because the hostile environment was not severe or pervasive.

The employee was not subjected to insults, intimidation or physical threats, noted the court. While her supervisor allegedly did behave in a hostile manner toward her by applying perfume in her presence, that behavior was not serious enough or frequent enough to render her work environment an abusive one. In addition, her supervisor’s alleged threat of discipline after the employee objected to fragrances did not plausibly suggest the kind of intimidating or derisive atmosphere indicative of a hostile workplace, even when combined with other evidence.

Source: Alanis v. Metra (NDIll 2016) No. 13 CV 5962.

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