Fired State Employee With Anxiety Disorder Raises Triable ADA Claims, 4th Cir. Decides

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By Kevin McGowan

March 13 — A North Carolina state employee fired three weeks after she requested accommodation for social anxiety disorder has triable claims for discrimination, retaliation and failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled March 12.

Reversing summary judgment for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, the court said Christina Jacobs, a former deputy clerk, raised triable issues she has a disability covered by the ADA, as amended, but that her supervisors fired her for alleged performance issues after Jacobs requested reassignment from working on a customer service desk that exacerbated her condition.

The district court erred on summary judgment by ignoring evidence that favors Jacobs and by drawing all inferences in favor of the state office, the Fourth Circuit said. 

Unlike the district court, the Fourth Circuit ruled social anxiety disorder is an ADA-covered disability and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's ADA regulations reasonably provide that “interacting with others” is a major life activity.

Jacobs produced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that she was substantially limited in interacting with others, she notified her supervisors about her disability, she was otherwise qualified for the deputy clerk position and that her request to work with the public one day a week while performing back-office duties the rest of the time was the actual cause of her discharge, the appeals court said.

Useful ‘Road Map' on Disability

The “most striking thing” about the Fourth Circuit's opinion is how it took to task the district court for not following summary judgment principles and how the appeals court laid out the evidence and inferences supporting Jacobs's claims, said Brian East, an attorney with Disability Rights Texas in Austin, which filed an amicus brief supporting Jacobs.

Disability Rights Texas, a nonprofit advocacy group, got involved because of the social anxiety disorder issue, which courts had been reluctant to consider a disability prior to passage of the ADA Amendments Act, East told Bloomberg BNA March 13. Since the ADA Amendments Act took effect Jan. 1, 2009, most courts have found social anxiety disorder is a covered disability, he said.

The Fourth Circuit is the first federal appeals court of which East is aware that has gone through the diagnostic manual analysis to conclude social anxiety disorder indeed is an ADA disability, East said. The opinion provides a “useful road map” for analyzing whether a plaintiff's evidence supports a disability claim, he said.

The bigger court battle now may be “what does it mean to be substantially limited” in social interactions for a person with anxiety disorder, East said.

The Fourth Circuit clearly states a person with social anxiety disorder need not be a recluse to be protected under the ADA, East said. The opinion is helpful because it says the state employer's arguments—that Jacobs met with co-workers socially, she currently works at another job involving customer service and she interacts with others on social media—don't negate a finding of substantial limitation, East said.

The decision also provides “very useful” language on how to address reasonable accommodation issues, he said.

The North Carolina Justice Department was unavailable for comment March 13.

Summary Judgment Rules Flouted 

Writing for the Fourth Circuit, Judge Henry F. Floyd said the district court flouted U.S. Supreme Court precedent regarding summary judgment by failing to consider all of Jacobs's evidence, stating the facts in the light most favorable to the state, drawing inferences in favor of the state and resolving disputed factual issues a jury should decide.

At every stage of its analysis, the district court showed “clear misapprehension of summary judgment standards,” the Fourth Circuit said.

“Both of the district court's key factual findings—that Jacobs was not disabled and that [Clerk of Court Brenda] Tucker did not learn of Jacobs's accommodation request prior to terminating her—rest on factual inferences contrary to Jacobs's competent evidence,” Floyd wrote. “The district court thus improperly resolved factual issues at the summary judgment stage, in contravention of well-settled law.”

Among other miscues, the district court said Jacobs had “what was described as a melt-down” with a co-worker that disrupted the workplace even though the co-worker denied such an outburst ever occurred, the Fourth Circuit said.

The district court accepted a manager's characterization that Jacobs had told the manager she was “having social issues” while working at the front counter when Jacobs testified she told the manager she has social anxiety disorder, the Fourth Circuit said.

The district court stated as “undisputed fact” that Jacobs didn't tell anyone she was disabled in May or June 2009 (months before her September 2009 termination) even though Jacobs and two managers agreed Jacobs that spring had told her immediate supervisor that her social anxiety was affecting her work and Jacobs had received medical treatment for that condition in the past, the Fourth Circuit said.

The district court also adopted the state's “erroneous contention” that its medical expert failed to examine Jacobs because she didn't consent to a medical exam in discovery, the Fourth Circuit said. But in reality, the state office never filed a motion for a mental exam and didn't respond to Jacobs's lawyer's offer to proceed with such an examination without a court motion, the Fourth Circuit said.

“Considering the [summary judgment] order in its entirety, we conclude that the district court impermissibly ‘credited the evidence of the party seeking summary judgment and failed properly to acknowledge key evidence offered by the party opposing that motion,' ” the Fourth Circuit said. “This was error.”

In ruling Jacobs wasn't disabled as a matter of law and that “no evidence” indicates Tucker knew Jacobs had requested accommodation when Tucker fired her, the district court ignored Jacobs's medical evidence and direct and circumstantial evidence Tucker knew about the accommodation request, the Fourth Circuit said.

EEOC's Position Endorsed 

Jacobs argued her social anxiety disorder is a disability because it substantially limits her ability to interact with others, which the EEOC has defined as a major life activity in its ADA regulations.

Although the state employer didn't dispute below that Jacobs's condition could be a disability, the district court ruled Jacobs didn't have a disability as a matter of law. On appeal, the state contested disability, arguing that interacting with others isn't an ADA “major life activity.”

The EEOC reasonably found that “interacting with others” is a major life activity, the Fourth Circuit said.

“Few activities are more central to the human condition than interacting with others,” Floyd wrote. “If ‘bending' and ‘lifting' are major life activities” under the ADA Amendments Act, then “it is certainly reasonable for the EEOC to conclude that interacting with others falls in the same category.”

“Identifying ‘interacting with others' as a major life activity comparable to ‘caring for oneself,' ‘speaking,' ‘learning,' and ‘communicating' advances the broad remedial purpose of the ADA,” Floyd wrote. “We therefore defer to the EEOC's determination and hold that interacting with others is a major life activity.”

A jury also reasonably could find Jacobs was “substantially limited” in interacting with others, given the medical testimony regarding social anxiety disorder and Jacobs's own testimony about her stress and occasional panic attacks, the court said.

“A person need not live as a hermit in order to be ‘substantially limited' in interacting with others,” Floyd wrote.

“That Jacobs may have endured social situations does not per se preclude a finding that she had social anxiety disorder,” the court said. “Rather Jacobs need only show that she endured these situations ‘with intense anxiety.' At a minimum, Jacobs's testimony that working the front counter caused her extreme stress and panic attacks created a disputed issue of fact on this issue.”

Retaliation and Accommodation 

Jacobs presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to doubt the state office's asserted reasons for terminating her, which have shifted over time, the court said.

Tucker told Jacobs when she was fired that she worked too slowly, wasn't “getting it” and the office lacked another position to which Jacobs cold be moved. But Jacobs had been promoted to deputy clerk a month after being hired and she never received any negative performance review or warning her job was at risk before she was fired, three weeks after submitting her accommodation request, the court said.

After Jacobs filed her EEOC charge and lawsuit, Tucker said Jacobs had been fired in part for sleeping on the job, although such an incident had never been mentioned before and Jacobs denied it ever occurred.

For purposes of the ADA discrimination and retaliation claims, the employer's shifting explanations for Jacobs's discharge, Tucker's probable knowledge of her accommodation request and the absence of any documented employer dissatisfaction with her job performance raise a triable issue of pretext, the Fourth Circuit said.

Jacobs also has a triable ADA failure-to-accommodate claim, the court said. Jacobs established genuine factual disputes whether she has a disability and the employer had notice of her disability and it's undisputed the employer refused accommodation, the court said.

The only remaining issue is whether a reasonable jury could find that with a reasonable accommodation, Jacobs could perform the job's essential functions, the court said.

Given that the state office employed 30 deputy clerks and only four worked regularly at the front counter, there is “ample evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that working at the front counter was not an essential function of the position of deputy clerk,” the court said.

The state office produced no evidence that “mastery of the front desk was essential,” given the many other duties deputy clerks performed, or that Jacobs's no longer working the front counter would negatively impact the office, the court said.

Jacobs raised a triable issue whether with a reasonable accommodation, she could perform the essential tasks of a deputy clerk, as her social anxiety disorder wouldn't interfere with filing, microfilming or other back-office duties, the court said.

Given management's refusal to discuss Jacobs's accommodation request with her and its decision to fire her instead, the court said, “a reasonable jury could easily conclude that the [state office] acted in bad faith by failing to engage in the interactive process” required by the ADA.

Judges Barbara Milano Keenan and Pamela A. Harris joined in the decision.

Vanessa K. Lucas of Edelstein & Payne in Raleigh, N.C., and Lisa Grafstein and Mercedes Restucha-Klem of Disability Rights North Carolina in Raleigh represented Jacobs. Kathryn Hicks Shields, Roy Cooper and Grady L. Balentine Jr. of the North Carolina Department of Justice represented the state courts office.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Jacobs_v_NC_Admin_Office_of_the_Courts_No_132212_2015_BL_66796_4t.