ADA workplace accommodation

Claim by fired deputy clerk of court that her social anxiety disorder constituted a disability and that her employer failed to make reasonable accommodation survives summary judgment motion, as the Court emphasizes the remedial goals of the ADA

Jacobs v. NC Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562 (4th Cir. 2015)

Christina Jacobs was hired as a deputy clerk in the New Hanover County Superior Court. The job description for deputy clerk included many activities, and only a few of the deputies regularly provided customer service at the courthouse front counter. Jacobs, who was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, was assigned to provide customer service on a daily basis. She experienced extreme anxiety and distress from interacting with the public at the counter. She requested to be assigned to a role with less direct interpersonal interaction. Her employer did not respond to her accommodation request, and three weeks later fired her. She made a timely complaint to the EEOC, which conducted an investigation and made a finding in her favor. The Department of Justice later issued a “Right to Sue” letter. Jacobs filed suit, claiming, among other things, disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation, all in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After discovery, defendant employer moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted on all counts.

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded on all counts except the claim of retaliation. It noted that the district court’s most fundamental error was deciding disputed factual issues in favor of the moving party, rather than determining whether, if the facts were as Jacobs alleged, no reasonable juror could find that the defendant had committed violations of the ADA. 

The Fourth Circuit then examined the claims and facts. Some notable observations include:

1. The Court first reviewed the ADA definition of “disability” and nonexhaustive list of “major life activities” including the EEOC’s acceptance of “interacting with others” as a major life activity. Moreover, the 2008 ADA amendments broadened the definition of disability in order to expand the scope of protection available under the Act “as broadly as the text permits.” The Fourth Circuit “therefore defer[red] to the EEOC's determination…that interacting with others is a major life activity.”

2. The Court rejected the employer’s claim that Jacobs had failed to show that her alleged social anxiety disorder substantially limited her ability to interact with others. The Court noted that the 2008 amendments define a disability as one that “substantially limits…as compared to most people in the general population…An impairment need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, the individual from performing a major life activity in order to be considered substantially limiting.”

3. The Court noted that a person “need not live as a hermit in order to be” substantially limited. The fact that Jacobs endured the social interactions for a time did “not per se preclude a finding that she had social anxiety disorder,” and “a reasonable jury could conclude that Jacobs was substantially limited in her ability to interact with others and thus disabled within the meaning of the ADA.”

4. The Court ruled that at this stage of the litigation the absence of any documentation of poor performance, and the shifting reasons of the employer regarding unsatisfactory performance, were sufficient to establish that the employer’s claims were a pretext and not the actual reason for the decision to fire her.

5. The Court also analyzed whether the employer made a reasonable effort at accommodation. The Court wrote that employers have a good-faith duty “to engage [with their employees] in an interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation” under the ADA (Wilson v. Dollar Gen. Corp., 717 F.3d at 346, 4 th Cir. 2013). 9 The Fourth Circuit found that, given the undisputed facts regarding the meeting at which Jacobs was fired, “a reasonable jury could easily conclude” that Jacobs’s employer acted in bad faith by failing to engage in the interactive process with Jacobs at that meeting.

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 2