US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling:  Interacting With Others Is A Major Life Activity

Document created by 1002070 on Apr 6, 2015Last modified by 1002028 on Apr 13, 2015
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Pat Rountree.jpgThis case should grab your attention for three reasons:  1) It was decided by a US District Court of Appeals on a North Carolina case, 2) it identifies a new major life activity under ADA that you may not have thought of as being one:  interacting with others due to a mental impairment (in this case, social anxiety disorder); and 3) it provides some good lessons for employers.

 

The case involved a Deputy Clerk, Christina Jacobs, who was one of 30 employees having that title in the New Hanover, North Carolina courthouse.  She was one of a several deputy clerks who were assigned weekly duty at the court’s counter to provide customer service.  In addition she performed microfilming duties.  Other deputy clerks’ duties included microfilming, filing, and recordkeeping.  All Deputy Clerks had the same job description.

 

Shortly after being assigned to the front counter, the employee began experiencing anxiety and nervousness, and advised her supervisor that she did not feel well.  She advised the supervisor after two months at the counter that she had been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in college, and she  thought the front counter interactions were making her ill.  She requested that her supervisor assign her to other deputy clerk duties four days a week and only require her to work at the front counter one day a week.  The supervisor initially ignored her requests, then suggested that she see her doctor who could perhaps help her with her anxiety.

 

In the meantime the supervisor advised the Clerk of Court who had hired Jacobs as an Office Assistant (and promoted her to the position of Deputy Clerk three months later) of Jacobs social anxiety disorder* and request for alternate duties.  When Jacobs sent a letter to her supervisor and the Clerk of Court six months after she had made the first request to be allowed to substitute other Deputy Clerk duties for the front counter duties and advised them that she had social anxiety disorder, she was subsequently discharged.

 

The employee filed a charge against her employer with the EEOC, who issued a Right to Sue letter.  The District Court ruled in favor of the employer stating that the employee did not have a disability and that the Clerk of Court was not aware of her request for accommodation when she was terminated.

 

On appeal, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the District Court summary judgment for the employer stating that the district court erred by failing to consider all evidence in the record. In appeals court, the court reviewed contradictory evidence by the employer in their EEOC charge and what was stated in court regarding the employee's performance issues and an outburst with another employes.  However, there was nothing in the personnel file on performance issues or outbursts, and in fact the employee who was supposed to have been the subject of the outburst denied it occurred.  Also, the Clerk of Court (employer) said she was not aware of the request for accommodation when the employee was terminated; however, there was evidence that contradicted (including a confidential tape recording the employee had made at the meeting where she had expected to discuss her accommodation request, but was fired).

 

This case has some lessons for employers:

  1. Don’t dismiss a request for accommodation without thoroughly considering whether it may fall under ADA.  In this case, there were other employees who could have handled the front desk duties, and this employee could have been assigned other duties.
  2. Understand that the list of major life activities in ADAAA is not exhaustive. The court ruled in this case that Few activities are more central to the human condition than interacting with others.
  3. Document any performance issues if they exist.  Although you must still consider accommodation if the performance issues are related to the disability and it is not an undue hardship to accommodate (in this case, the employee could easily have been accommodated).
  4. Before terminating an employee, review the reason.  Review applicable documentation, relevant statements and emails, and review with the supervisor(s) and other management/employees involved to ensure a thorough investigation has been conducted.   This case fell apart at the appeals court with weak and contradictory evidence.

 

To read the case, see http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/Opinions/Published/132212.P.pdf.

 

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