Fifth Circuit Favors Texas Man in a Food Bank Case

A Texas man sued a food bank for discrimination when he was thrown out due to refusing to wear a mask during the Covid-19 pandemic.

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger (“EPFH”) is a food bank located in El Paso, Texas. They distribute  food to those in need at walk-up locations. The EPFH required all food recipients to wear face mask and while receiving food during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alejandro Hernandez sued EPFH and two of its employees  for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Hernandez presented to the court documents that on the 10th of January 2021, he was “pushed out of the building physically” and was “sham[ed] in the form of name calling” by a male EPFH employee because he declined to wear a mask for “medical reasons.”

Hernandez showed the court documents that he cannot wear a face mask due to medical reasons which incudes deviated septum, severe PTSD, and “chronic anxiety and panic triggers that hinder breathing abruptly.”  Hernandez said that he was “publicly labeled with demeaning, humiliating and degrading language and treatment” by the food bank and its employees during the incident which made him file a case against them.

In April 2021, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Castaneda recommended the dismissal of  Hernandez’s case. According to him,  Hernandez failed to provide facts that showed disability-based discrimination committed by the employees and the food bank.

According to Judge  Robert Castaneda, the Plaintiff alleges that he was discriminated by Defendants, but this was not based on his disability. Hernandez said that he was denied service because of the food bank’s mask policy, which all customers are required without exception for customers who cannot wear a face mask for medical reasons.  Castaneda’s recommendations was adopted by the district court and the case was dismissed.

However, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The panel was comprised of a George W. Bush appointee, U.S. Circuit Judge Catharina Haynes; a Bill Clinton appointee, Carl Stewart; and a Jimmy Carter appointee, Senior Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King, . They reversed most of Castaneda’s ruling and revived Hernandez’s lawsuit.

Hernandez was given the chance to amend any errors in his complaint and continue the case against the food bank due to the the unsigned 7-page order. Although the order was unsigned, Judge Haynes was noted as concurring only in the judgment.

According to the panel,  they agreed with the lower court that Hernandez’s accusation failed to sufficiently make out a claim for ADA relief — but instead of pronouncing the case’s dismissal, they gave the plaintiff some advice as to how to fix his pleadings.

The panel began examining the complain by noting that in making its decision, the district court improperly relied on the EPFH’s website in order to determine if the food bank allowed for an accommodation such as home delivery that would have been convenient for Hernandez’s needs.

The lower court find Hernandez’s complaint as “frivolous.” which the panel also took issue. According to the lower court the EPFH makes no exceptions for its masking policy, which prevents Hernandez from gaining its services. They cannot reason that any of these facts (or the others alleged in the Complaint) are fanciful,  fantastic, or delusional, nor do these allegations read as irrational or wholly incredible.” The district court gave Hernandez a chance to change his original filing.

The panel also noted in a footnote that during the period since Hernandez’s filing in March 2021, screening the requirements have relaxed in many places. Accordingly, the district court should first determine whether Hernandez is open for seeking to enjoin a policy that is no longer in effect.