Social anxiety disorder can be a disability, and our client Christina Jacobs deserves a trial on the merits of her claim that she was denied reasonable accommodations, was discriminated against because of her disability, and suffered unlawful retaliation for asserting her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So ruled the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals today in Jacobs v. NC Administrative Office of the Courts, No. 13-2212. Edelstein & Payne partner Vanessa Lucas litigated the case and the appeal, working with attorneys Lisa Grafstein and Mercedes Restucha-Klem from Disability Rights NC.
In a 44-page published opinion, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's dismissal, and remanded the case for a jury trial on the merits. The Court carefully clarified that summary judgment dismissal of a case is only appropriate when there are no material issues of fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law; also that a court deciding a summary judgment motion must view every potential issue in the light most favorable for the non-moving party.
Ms. Jacobs was fired from her job as a deputy clerk of the New Hanover County clerk's office a few weeks after requesting that she be re-assigned from her duties working the customer service counter because of her social anxiety disorder. Rather than explore reasonable accommodations for Ms. Jacobs' disability as required by law, the Clerk of the Court terminated her employment, and later claimed the termination was for unacceptable job performance unrelated to the request for accommodations.
To establish a claim for disability discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove “(1) that she has a disability, (2) that she is a ‘qualified individual' for the employment in question, and (3) that [her employer] discharged her (or took other adverse employment action) because of her disability.”
“Disability” is defined by the ADA as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A). The ADA provides a nonexhaustive list of major life activities, including “speaking,” “concentrating,” “thinking,” “communicating,” and “working.” Id. § 12102(2)(A). The EEOC has also identified “interacting with others” as a major life activity. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i)(1)(i).
In September 2008, Congress broadened the definition of ‘disability' by enacting the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110–325, 122 Stat. 3553 . . . .” Summers v. Altarum Inst., Corp., 740 F.3d 325, 329 (4th Cir. 2014). The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) was intended to make it “easier for people with disabilities to obtain protection under the ADA.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.1(c)(4). The regulation clarifies that “[t]he primary object of attention in cases brought brought under the ADA should be whether covered entities have complied with their obligations and whether discrimination has occurred, not whether the individual meets the definition of disability." Id.
Ms. Jacobs alleged that her social anxiety disorder is a disability under the ADAA because it substantially limited her ability to interact with others, and the Court of Appeals agreed. The Court also agreed that interacting with others is a "major life activity" under the statute, citing existing caselaw that a major life activity is one that is “of central importance to daily life,” and noting that few activities a more central to the lives of human beings than interacting with others. The Court also rejected the defense argument that Ms. Jacobs' social anxiety disorder did not "substantially limit" her ability to interact with others, explaining that the relatively new ADAAA is more inclusive than the old standard, which required a plaintiff to prove "significant restriction."
After considerable analysis of Ms. Jacob's social anxiety disorder as a disability, the court also ruled that sufficient issues of fact exist for a jury to decide the other two factors (fitness for the job, and that the firing was a result of the disability) in Ms. Jacobs' favor. After then resolving the issue of whether there were sufficient issues to present to a jury Ms. Jacob's claim of retaliation, the court turned to her third claim, that the Administrative Office of the Courts failed to make reasonable accommodations for her disability.
To establish a prima facie case for failure to accommodate, a plaintiff must show: “(1) that [she] was an individual who had a disability within the meaning of the statute; (2) that the employer had notice of [her] disability; (3) that with reasonable accommodation [she] could perform the essential functions of the position; and (4) that the employer refused to make such accommodations.” Wilson v. Dollar Gen. Corp., 717 F.3d 337, 345 (4th Cir. 2013). The court found that the first two questions were already answered during their analysis of the issue of discrimination and retaliation, so turned to the third element: with reasonable accommodations could Ms. Jacobs have adequately performed the job? Noting that a majority of the deputy clerks in the office were not required to interact with the public, and that relief from front desk duties was the only accommodation Ms. Jacobs requested, the Court ruled that a reasonable jury could find in her favor therefore the trial court's dismissal of the reasonable accommodation claim was inappropriate.
Congratulations on this great win for Vanessa and her cohorts at Disability Rights NC! This precedent-setting opinion is sure to be widely cited for several issues of law, and will help make the workplace a little more fair for disabled workers.