Second Circuit Holds that ADA Requires Accommodation of an Impairment that Constitutes a "Disability," But Not Other Related Impairments
In a potentially significant decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York has ruled that an employer's duty of reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("
The plaintiff, Denise Felix, was a subway token clerk. While en route to work, she was stuck in a subway car when the station where she was assigned was firebombed, killing one of the token clerks. She saw the smoke-filled platform when the train finally arrived and was traumatized by the realization that she could have been killed. For more than eight months she was unable to work because of post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). Her symptoms included insomnia, anxiety and apprehension, and feelings of claustrophobia that prevented her from working underground. Her doctors instructed her not to work in the subway, but cleared her for office work. She requested transfer to an office job (about 50 of the Transit Authority's 3417 token clerks work in office jobs), but her request was denied. Eventually she was discharged and brought suit under the
The Second Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the TA because it agreed with the TA that even though Felix's insomnia was a disability within the meaning of the
The court's conclusion proceeded from its analysis that Felix had two separate impairments as a result of her PTSD - an inability to work in the subway and insomnia. Felix's insomnia constituted a disability because it substantially limited her in the major activity of sleeping. On the other hand, her inability to work in the subway was not a "disability" within the meaning of the
Felix is a fractured decision. Dissenting, Judge Leval agreed with the majority that an employee is entitled to an accommodation only for a condition which constitutes a "disability" as defined by the
Viewed as a simple disagreement among three appellate judges as to what the record evidence of the employee's "disability" meant, Felix is simply a close case that does not establish much that is new. What makes Felix a case that may have a significant impact on future decisions are the lengths to which the majority went to distance the
The court emphasized that while the purpose of the
This clear rejection of the principle that anyone with a disability whose job causes stress might be entitled to an accommodation because of the stress is underscored by Judge Jacobs's concurring opinion. Judge Jacobs characterized the dissent as assuming that an employee's impairment would constitute a "disability" for which the law requires an accommodation "even when the impairment is caused by the particular job and would not exist if the employee did something else. Virtually all ramifications of this assumption (if adopted) would be absurd." To illustrate the absurdity, Judge Jacobs posited some examples. "[I]f a nasty supervisor induces a stress level that substantially impairs an employee's sleep (a major life activity), I do not think that the employer is required to accommodate the sleep impairment by a transfer to a boss who is nicer. Similarly, a lifeguard who has had a near-drowning experience cannot demand a desk job on the ground that she would hyperventilate (arguably a substantial impairment of the major life activity of breathing), or suffer insomnia, if she were to go in the water. And a person whose fear of flying impairs his breathing or sleep cannot insist on circus employment as one of the human cannon-balls and compel an accommodation that allows him to sell the tickets."
While Judge Jacobs's remarks are a bit hyperbolic and obviously do not constitute the law of the Circuit, taken together with the majority opinion, and even the dissent, they demonstrate a clear lack of patience for ADA claims in which the plaintiff appears to be using an impairment as a device to seek entitlement to a preferable job and relief from an unsatisfying one. That makes Felix a very welcome development for employers - and potentially a useful precedent for future cases in which plaintiffs try to use the