More for Employers to Be Anxious About Under the ADAAA

By and on April 28, 2015

In 2008, Congress enacted the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which expanded the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 (“ADA”).  Congress passed the ADAAA with the express intent of counteracting several Supreme Court of the United States precedents and “reinstating a broad scope of protection to be available under the ADA.”  Last month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562 (4th Cir. 2015) showed how broad the ADAAA’s protection can be.

Ms. Jacobs was a deputy clerk for the criminal division of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and had social anxiety disorder. After being assigned to provide customer service at the criminal division’s front counter, she experienced nervousness, extreme stress and panic attacks. Rather than providing her an accommodation, the AOC fired her three weeks later, claiming that she was not “getting it” and that it did not have a place for her.  Ms. Jacobs brought three causes of action under the ADA: (1) disability discrimination; (2) failure to provide a reasonable accommodation; and (3) retaliation.

After the district court granted summary judgment to AOC and dismissed Ms. Jacobs’ claims, she appealed to the Fourth Circuit. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision granting the AOC summary judgment on the ADA claims and remanded the case to the district court for trial.  After chastising the district court for failing to apply the summary judgment standard in light of the facts, the Fourth Circuit analyzed Ms. Jacobs’ discrimination claim and offered a notable lesson in what not to do when handling an ADA issue in the workplace.

To establish a disability discrimination claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) that she has a disability; (2) that she was qualified for the position; (3) and that she was discharged because of the disability.  The AOC argued that Ms. Jacobs did not have a disability as a matter of law.  The Fourth Circuit noted that the ADAAA and its regulations place the focus of a discrimination inquiry on whether discrimination has occurred, and minimize the question of whether a person meets the definition of a disability.  In the ADAAA, Congress stated that “whether an individual’s impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis.” Moreover, the ADAAA defines “disability” broadly, as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  Congress provided a non-exhaustive list of “major life activities” that includes reading, communicating, learning, thinking, working, as well as the operation of major bodily functions, such as bowel or digestive functions.  EEOC-issued regulations list an additional activity: “interacting with others.”

Relying on expert testimony and the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the Fourth Circuit held that whether Ms. Jacobs’ social anxiety disorder substantially limited her ability to interact with others was a question for the jury. The Court noted that under the ADAAA, a plaintiff no longer had to show that her disability “significantly restricted” the major life activity, which was the prior standard.  The ADAAA rejected that as “too high a standard.”  To be “substantially limiting,” the Court noted, an impairment “need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, the individual from performing a major life activity.” Citing Ms. Jacobs’ testimony that enduring the various social situations required by her front desk position caused her intense anxiety, the Court held that whether Ms. Jacobs’ social anxiety disorder substantially limited her ability to interact with others was a question of fact and that the district court erred in granting the AOC summary judgment.

As to whether Ms. Jacob’s was a qualified individual for her job, the AOC argued that Ms. Jacobs has multiple disciplinary and performance problems, including being a slow worker and having outbursts with supervisors and coworkers.  There was no documentary evidence of these issues and there were internal inconsistencies in the testimony of AOC’s witnesses as to whether such outbursts took place.  Furthermore, Ms. Jacobs argued that she was promoted just a month before her termination and never received a negative performance review.  Based on that evidence, the Fourth Circuit found that a reasonable jury could conclude that Ms. Jacobs was qualified.

Lastly, the Court found that the AOC had knowledge of Ms. Jacobs’ anxiety disorder and had received the reasonable accommodation request a mere three weeks before she was terminated.  Accordingly, the Court found that there was ample evidence for a jury to conclude that Ms. Jacobs was terminated because of her disability.

Jacobs makes clear that employers can expect courts to rule that a plaintiff’s claim of disability is an issue of fact for the jury. Each element of the definition of disability – 1) “a physical or mental impairment”; 2) “that substantially limits”; 3) a “major life activity” – is defined very broadly in the ADAAA.  Given that fact and the directives of Congress for courts to focus on the issue of whether discrimination has occurred, employers will have a difficult time successfully arguing that an employee is not disabled. Have an employee with anger management issues? Sounds like an “emotional or mental illness” that substantially limits his ability to interact with others. How about an employee with horrible gas? Sounds like digestive impairment that substantially limits an employee’s ability to concentrate. These hypothetical claims may seem outlandish, but they could find friendly support in the ADAAA.

Employers should take two things away from Jacobs. First, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT. Employers should document employee performance and disciplinary issues when they occur.  And second, take requests for accommodation seriously.  Engage in an interactive process with the employee to find a suitable position that accommodates the employee’s disability. Jacobs is another example of how the ADAAA has made things easier on employees. For employers to avoid liability, they should be vigilant when it comes to the other elements of a discrimination claim.

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