By L.M. Sixel
Sometimes you want your boss, airline or landlord to know you mean business. Maybe it’s because being nice isn’t working. Maybe you want to draw a line in the sand. Or you just want what you have coming under the law.
Whatever the motivation, the language you use can make all the difference.
Deploying the right in-the-know phrase signals that you know your rights and that you’ve probably got a lawyer on speed dial.
Below are four legal phrases to use for common problems, including how to ask for help with your disability at work, what to do if you get unexpectedly stuck at an airport or come home to find your air conditioning broken.
With a little practice they should roll off your tongue.
Similarly situated employees: It is a fancy way of saying it’s not just you. Are you not getting paid overtime and you should? Are men getting raises but the women aren’t? If you complain to your boss –or file complaints with federal regulators –you can say it is affecting you and similarly situated employees. That odd legal phrasing –commonly used by employment lawyers but not many others–will likely cause the folks in human resources to wonder if you’re taking to a lawyer.
Contract of carriage: This is the document that controls your air travel and determines whether you’ll get a free meal if your flight is delayed, what you can check in your baggage and what you’re owed if the flight is oversold. Every airline has one. If you are stuck at the airport because your flight has been cancelled and you can’t get rebooked for another three days, ask the gate agent for a copy of the airline’s contract of carriage. Or pull up a copy on your phone. Then read it carefully to see how it applies to your situation.
One time I cited the contract of carriage when I was trying to get a refund for a ticket I had to cancel. The airline had never sent me an email confirmation and I realized from reading the contract of carriage that the airline was required to do so. Up until then, I couldn’t get the airline to even consider a refund. But when I cited the specific rule number and passage in the contract of carriage, the manager immediately agreed to give me my money back.
Request for a reasonable accommodation: Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, employees with disabilities can ask their companies for help to do their jobs. It can be providing a device like a bigger computer screen for employees with sight problems, time off to eat lunch every day for diabetics controlling their blood sugar or modifying work hours for employees receiving medical treatment. The key is you have to ask. And the most effective way is to use the exact language of the federal disabilities law.
Putting the phrase “Request for reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act” in the subject line of an email will likely get the immediate attention of human resources.
The courts have said repeatedly that employees don’t have to invoke any “magic words” such as “reasonable accommodation” to assert their rights, said Rudy Sustaita, regional attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Houston. But it helps to use the legal phrasing, he said. “That way, an employer can’t say, ‘I didn’t know what he was talking about.'”
Implied warranty of habitability: When you are renting a home or apartment, there is a legal doctrine that the unit must be fit to live in. It covers essential services like plumbing and heat that can make a dwelling unlivable.
Legal media consultant Mary Flood recalls the hot summer in Houston when her air conditioning broke in her apartment. She called her landlord and said that she doesn’t care what the lease says because there is an implied warranty of habitability and that she wanted a hotel room provided at no cost until the air conditioning was fixed.
She got a free hotel room for two nights and her air conditioning was repaired.
“I wasn’t even a lawyer then,” said Flood, who went on to get a law degree from Harvard.