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Second Circuit Limits Scope of Disability in "Interacting with Others"

October 26, 2004

An individual is considered to be "disabled," and therefore protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act (the "ADA"), if he or she suffers from a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. A recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York illustrates the difficulties courts have encountered in applying this standard to mental disabilities and impairments. In Jacques v. DiMarzio, Inc., 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 20780 (2d Cir. Oct. 5, 2004), the Second Circuit ruled that "interacting with others" can be a major life activity for purposes of the ADA only if an individual is substantially limited in interacting with others at the most basic level. In so holding, the Second Circuit expressly rejected a much more expansive decision by the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, in McAlindin v. County of San Diego, 192 F.3d 1226 (9th Cir. 1999), which held that an individual could establish a substantial limitation in the major life activity of "interacting with others" merely by demonstrating that his or her "relations with others were characterized on a regular basis by severe problems, for example, consistently high levels of hostility, social withdrawal, or failure to communicate when necessary."

The federal courts have struggled for years to apply the ADA's provisions to mental disabilities. Because mental disorders often affect personality traits that are desirable—if not essential—in the workplace, employers must walk a fine line in determining whether a disability that substantially limits those traits can or must be accommodated. "Interacting with others" is particularly problematic when considered as a major life activity subject to the ADA's protections, because it is not an objectively measurable activity, unlike other life activities such as lifting or seeing. As a result, most courts other than the Ninth Circuit have avoided deciding whether "interacting with others" qualifies as a major life activity under the ADA. The Second Circuit affirmatively decided in Jacques that "interacting with others" is a major life activity, but severely circumscribed its definition to encompass only a severe limitation on the fundamental ability to communicate with other people.

In Jacques, the plaintiff was a woman with bipolar disorder and a decades-long history of severe and major depression. She was terminated from her employment with an electric-guitar manufacturer, after a long series of efforts to accommodate her disability, when the employer finally determined that it was impossible to retain her. Jacques was described as a "problem employee" who was prone to confrontations with co-workers, intolerance of minorities in the department, and emotional difficulties in dealing with supervisory staff. The employer concluded that there was "no reason why his supervisory staff should be forced to make such an extreme effort to tiptoe around and cater to someone who was emotionally unstable."

The Second Circuit framed the inquiry in an "interacting with others" case as whether the individual's mental or physical impairment severely limits the fundamental ability to communicate with others. As the court stated, "This standard is met when the impairment severely limits the plaintiff's ability to connect with others, i.e., to initiate contact with other people and respond to them, or to go among other people—at the most basic level of these activities. The standard is not satisfied by a plaintiff whose basic ability to communicate with others is not substantially limited but whose communication is inappropriate, ineffective, or unsuccessful."

The Second Circuit rejected the Ninth Circuit's "presumed demarcation" between a "cantankerous" employee (who would not be considered to be substantially limited in interacting with others) and a "hostile" employee (who would be so considered), and denounced McAlindin's standard as "unworkable, unbounded, and useless as guidance to employers, employees, judges, and juries." The court also noted that such a standard "frustrates the maintenance of a civil workplace environment" and creates unacceptable risks for employers who wish to fire "troublesome and nasty" employees.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals covers several Northeastern states including New York. The Ninth Circuit covers most of the Western states, including California, Arizona, and Nevada. In all likelihood, the conflict between these two federal appellate courts in applying the ADA to the major life activity of "interacting with others" will ultimately have to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, for guidance with disability discrimination and reasonable accommodations under the ADA and applicable state and local laws, please contact any of the attorneys in our New York or San Francisco offices.