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