Apr 11, 2003 Employment Discrimination

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 (“ADA”) is limited to accommodating the impairment that limits the employee’s major life activity, and does not extend to accommodating other, related impairments that do not themselves constitute a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA. Felix v. New York City Transit Authority, No. 01-7967, 2003 WL 1661135 (2d Cir. Mar. 31, 2003)

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 a 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 ADA.

The ADA requires employers to provide a “reasonable accommodation” to an employee who is unable to perform the essential functions of her job because of a disability. Transfer to a vacant position for which the employee is qualified is ordinarily considered to be a reasonable accommodation when no other accommodations would permit the employee to perform the essential functions of the employee’s original job. Felix claimed among other things that the refusal of her request for an office job constituted a failure to make the required “reasonable accommodation.” The district court dismissed the case on summary judgment, and the question on appeal was whether transfer to the office job was a reasonable accommodation for Felix’s condition.

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 ADA, the transfer did not constitute a reasonable accommodation because Felix had failed to submit evidence that working in an office would alleviate her insomnia.

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 ADA because working in the subway is not a major life activity. The court concluded that although both conditions resulted from the same traumatic incident and the resultant psychological disorder (PTSD), “this common traumatic origin alone does not mean that the non-disability impairment is entitled to an accommodation.” And since the ADA requires reasonable accommodation only for an employee’s “disability” as defined in the statute, the requested accommodation was not required: it would alleviate only an impairment that was not an ADA “disability” (inability to work in the subway), but would not alleviate a condition (insomnia) that was an ADA “disability.”

Felix is a fractured decision. Dissenting, Judge Leval agreed with the majority that an employee is entitled to accommodation only for a condition which constitutes a “disability” as defined by the ADA. He contended, however, that summary judgment was inappropriate, and that Felix was entitled to a trial, because she had “submitted evidence that working underground in the subway would aggravate her inability to sleep, and, conversely, that working above ground (the requested accommodation) would alleviate the disability (or avoid aggravating it). If the requested accommodation was ‘reasonable’ within the meaning of the statute, she was entitled to it.” In other words, he disagreed with the majority’s view as to the description of Felix’s “disability” on the basis of the evidence in the record.

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 ADA from protecting stress-like impairments that are related to an employee’s “disability” but do not themselves constitute separate “disabilities.”

The court emphasized that while the purpose of the ADA is to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy the same opportunities and benefits as others, the statute does not authorize preferences for disabled people generally. In the court’s view, requiring accommodation for Felix’s inability to work in the subway, rather than for her insomnia, would require “treating people with disabilities [e.g., Felix, who had PTSD and insomnia] better than others who are not disabled but have the same impairment for which accommodation is sought [e.g., someone who has PTSD but not insomnia]. We think that the ADA deliberately speaks in terms of eliminating discrimination and thus do not interpret it so broadly as to require the accommodation of impairments that do not limit major life activities whenever the person with an impairment happens to also have a disability. . . . An ADA plaintiff who is not otherwise impaired in a major life activity but suffers debilitating anxiety or stress from a particular job could get to a jury merely by alleging that the job causes insomnia, difficulty breathing, or some other set of disabling symptoms that can be characterized as a syndrome. We decline to adopt such an expansive reading of the ADA that frustrates its plain statutory meaning.”

This clear rejection of the principle that anyone with a disability whose job causes stress might be entitled to 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 cannonballs 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 ADA to obtain not just a level playing field with, but an advantage over, their non-disabled co-workers.