Fourth Circuit Addresses ADA Disability Discrimination, Retaliation, and Failure to Accommodate Claims
In a recent decision, Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (“AOC”), the Fourth Circuit reinstated a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by a court clerk terminated three weeks after requesting an accommodation for her social anxiety disorder.
Christina Jacobs was one of 30 deputy clerks, all with the same job description, who performed filing and record-keeping tasks; in addition, 4 or 5 (typically less senior) deputy clerks provided face-to-face customer service. Jacobs, who suffered from a social anxiety disorder, trained to work the customer service counter in March 2009 and experienced stress, nervousness, and panic attacks. In May 2009, she informed a supervisor of her anxiety disorder, and that supervisor in turn told the elected Clerk of Court, whose hand-written notes about Jacobs’s issues were added to her personnel file. In September 2009, Jacobs e-mailed her three immediate supervisors requesting an accommodation – – to train for different work and to work the counter only one day per week. Telling her that any action must await the Clerk’s return from vacation (three weeks later), her supervisors denied Jacobs’s request.
The Clerk terminated Jacobs because she was not “getting it,” and there was no place for her services. Jacobs observed an annotated printout of her September 2009 email at the termination meeting, but there was no discussion of her disability or her request for an accommodation. The AOC later alleged issues with Jacobs’s performance – – sleeping on the job, being slow, improper disclosure of information to the public, and outbursts with coworkers and supervisors – – that were not documented in her personnel file and about which there was conflicting testimony.
Jacobs filed suit, and the U.S. District Court in Wilmington granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, concluding that Jacobs was not disabled as a matter of law, and that there was no evidence in the record that the Clerk knew of her requested accommodation.
The Fourth Circuit reinstated the case, finding that the lower court improperly viewed the facts in a manner most favorable to the defendants. The Court stated that ADA cases should focus on covered entities’ compliance with their obligations and whether discrimination has occurred – – not whether the individual meets the definition of disability. Concluding that the EEOC reasonably characterized “interacting with others” as a major life activity, the Court stated that Jacobs’s evidence created an issue of fact with respect to her suffering from a social anxiety disorder. The Court also concluded that evidence showed that the Clerk knew when she terminated Jacobs that Jacobs was disabled and that she had requested an accommodation.
The Court deemed Jacobs’s requested accommodation reasonable because working at the front counter was not an “essential function” of the deputy clerk’s job and shifting that work to other deputy clerks did not increase their workload. The Court favorably cited Fifth and Sixth Circuit opinions holding that failure to discuss a reasonable accommodation in a meeting in which the employer takes an adverse employment action against an employee – – as arguably happened in this case – – is evidence of bad faith.
The Court reversed the lower court’s decision in part and remanded for a trial of ADA disability discrimination, retaliation, and failure to accommodate claims.