On March 12, 2015, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes South Carolina) delivered a resounding win to ADA discrimination employees in the case of Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts. The 4th Circuit reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer. Judge Floyd authored the opinion on behalf of the panel and concluded that the lower court ignored the facts in dispute which could support the employee’s position.
The employee in Jacobs was a deputy clerk of court who suffered from social anxiety disorder. The Court concluded that social anxiety disorder could be considered a disability under the ADA and substantially limited the employee’s ability to interact with others, a major life activity. As a deputy clerk, the employee had been assigned to work at the front counter and was required to provide services to the public. The employee alleged that her social anxiety disorder prevented her from working at the front counter and she requested an accommodation to work in a role with less social interaction. The courthouse employer never responded to the employee’s request and terminated her three weeks after she made the request. The employee brought suit in the Eastern District of North Carolina, arguing that her termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lower court judge granted summary judgment to the employer, which ended the employee’s case. Thereafter, the employee appealed her case to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Fourth Circuit heard the employee’s case and agreed that the lower court had erred. Notably, the 4th Circuit spent a great deal of time discussing the summary judgment standard. The Court decided that the lower court judge had failed to consider all of the evidence in the record and had misapplied the summary judgment standard. The opinion also provided a thorough summary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Some of the more important take-aways include the Court’s finding that a temporal proximity of three weeks alone can establish causation under the ADA. This is a strong reminder to employers that any adverse employment action taken shortly after an employee’s request for an accommodation under the ADA can support a legal claim. Additionally, the 4th Circuit noted that an employer’s addition of new alleged reasons for terminating an employee later in the process (and not at the EEOC stage) can show proof of pretext. The employer in Jacobs also failed to provide sufficient documentation for its actions and the Court found that this could be further evidence of pretext. Also, the 4th Circuit concluded that failing to discuss an employee’s request for an accommodation with him/her can be evidence of bad faith.
Employees who request an accommodation under the ADA and are terminated shortly thereafter should consult with an attorney and visit the webpage for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, www.eeoc.gov. In order to bring a claim for disability discrimination in court, an employee must file a complaint with the EEOC within 300 days of the alleged discrimination.