Today’s case comes from 2003 and represents the start of a line of cases that I am not sure I have discussed before. I am authoring a chapter in a federal employment litigation treatise on disability discrimination and the case came up during the course of that work. The case is Felix v. New York City Transit Authority, 324 F.3d 102 (2d Cir. 2003). As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; court’s reasoning that a causal link between the major life activity and the accommodation is required; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.
In 1994, plaintiff was hired as a railroad clerk by the New York City Transit Authority. At the time, it employed approximately 3,417 railroad clerks who overwhelmingly worked in token booths and subway stations selling tokens, commuter passes, and fare cards. They also provided information to passengers. Only approximately 50 railroad clerks worked in office jobs, who were also deployed to work in token booth a few days a year. In November 1995, plaintiff was assigned as an extra railroad clerk relieving railroad clerks who were on breaks. While on route to relieve a railroad clerk on the northbound platform of the station, she was informed that the railroad clerk on the southbound platform of the station had been killed in a firebombing accident. She saw the smoke from the platform and was stuck inside the railroad car for some time. As a result of that, she was diagnosed with post dramatic stress disorder. Her doctor specified that she could not do any subway work, but could do clerical work. Not later than August 13, 1996, she requested a reassignment to a position that would not require her to work in the subway as an accommodation of her medical problems. Two days later, her employer designated her as “no work temporary,” and one month later she was terminated under a rule authorizing termination of an employee who had been unable to return to work for a year. After exhausting her administrative remedies, she sued. The employer defended on several grounds, including: 1) she received SSDI; 2) no reasonable accommodation was available because working in the subway was an essential function of her job; and 3) there was no nexus between the major life activity impaired and the accommodation requested. The District Court rejected the first two arguments but granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on the ground that there was no nexus between the major life activity impaired and the accommodation requested. Plaintiff appealed.
Court’s Reasoning That There Must Be a Causal Link between the Specific Condition Limiting a Major Life Activity in the Accommodation Required
- The court only addressed the issue of a causal connection and not the other two issues where the lower court denied the summary judgment motion.
- An employer discriminates against an employee with a disability only by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for the disability, which is the impairment of the major life activity.
- Plaintiff’s inability to work in the subway did not substantially limit any major life activity. She was fully able to work just not in the subway.
- While her inability to work in the subway was related to her insomnia because they both stemmed from the same traumatic incident and the PTSD, that origin alone does not mean that the non-disability impairment is entitled to an accommodation.
- The impairment for which plaintiff sought an accommodation did not flow directly from the disability itself. That is, she sought a workplace accommodation for a mental condition that does not flow directly from her insomnia.
- Plaintiff did not argue that she was unable to work in the subway because the work aggravated her insomnia. Instead, she argued that she could not work in the subway because she was terrified of being alone and closed in.
- Adverse effects of disabilities and adverse or side effects for medical treatment of disability arise because of the disability. However, other impairments not caused by disability need not be accommodated.
- Plaintiff’s insomnia and her fear of the subway are two mental conditions deriving from the same traumatic incident.
- In situations where it is not clear that a single particular medical condition is responsible for both disability and the lesser impairment, the plaintiff must show a causal connection between the specific condition impairing a major life activity and the accommodation.
- The ADA mandates reasonable accommodation of people with disabilities in order to put them on an even playing field with the nondisabled; it does not authorize a preference for disabled people generally. To hold otherwise, transforms the ADA from an act prohibiting discrimination into an act requiring treating people with disabilities better than others who are not disabled but have the same impairment for which accommodation is sought.
- The ADA does not require the accommodation of impairments that do not limit major life activities whenever the person with an impairment happens to also have a disability.
- To hold otherwise, would mean that an ADA plaintiff who was not otherwise impaired in a major life activity but suffered 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.
- There was a concurring opinion in the case that seemed to misunderstand entirely the nature of disability and why a reasonable accommodation is requested.
- There was also a dissenting opinion that argued that a causal link between the specific condition limiting a major life activity and the accommodation existed in this case.
- Underlying the case is the question of when an employer has to reassign an employee that is no longer qualified for the job; a question where the circuit courts are currently split, as we discussed here.
- This case occurred long before the amendments to the ADA, which radically changed what is a major life activity.
- The amendments to the ADA also made clear that how the courts had interpreted substantial limitation was far too narrow. In light of the amendments, it shouldn’t be that difficult for a plaintiff attorney to properly allege a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
- The EEOC, 29 C.F.R. §1630.2(j)(ii), defines substantial limitation as a matter of being whether the person is substantially limited in a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.
- This case actually helps a plaintiff arguing for an animal to assist them in the workplace because the case talks about a reasonable accommodation for the disability. It isn’t talking about a reasonable accommodation relating to the essential functions of the job. Solid preventive law practice means linking the accommodation to the disability and not to the essential functions of the job.
- Plaintiff s would do well to make sure that the accommodation they are requesting relates to their disability. The case does give plaintiffs an argument that the critical question is how the disability relates to the accommodation and not how the accommodation relates to the essential functions of the job.
- We don’t know why the court did not address the first two issues. It is worth noting that the Cleveland case (SSDI can estop a reasonable accommodation request under some circumstances), that was decided by the Supreme Court was only four years old at the time of this decision. The Barnett decision (you do not have to reassign a person to a position if it means trumping seniority rights), was only one year old at the time.
- Working is still a major life activity and Sutton is still the operative standard. That said, with the amendments to the ADA, working should hardly ever be alleged as the major life activity, and it may even be legal malpractice to so allege absent no other alternative major life activity. That is, absent working it is now very difficult for a defendant to rebut that a physical or mental impairment does not substantially limit a major life activity, though on rare occasion it does happen.
- “Other impairment not caused by the disability,” is a strange turn of phrase looking at things in 2022 because a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Today, it difficult to think of a situation of an “other impairment not caused by the disability,” because the chances are very high that the “other impairment,” is associated with a disability of its own. I have the same concern for the court’s phrase, “lesser impairment.” The court’s very limited view of what a disability is may be a reflection of the Toyota Motor decision, which was one year old at the time Felix was decided.
- Toyota Motor, which held that to be substantially limited in performing manual tasks the person had to have an impairment that prevented or severely restricted the individual from performing such tasks, was overruled by the amendments to the ADA.
- Hard to understand how you could have today a situation where a person is not disabled but had the same impairment for which an accommodation is sought.
- A person can have more than one disability needing accommodations.
- I actually like this case in many respects even though much of its reasoning is outdated now due to the amendments to the ADA. A critical piece of this case is the accommodation focuses on the disability not on the essential function of the job. Also, it is a word to the wise to ensure that a plaintiff attorney makes clear how the accommodation relates to the disability. For the most part, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. Even so, a plaintiff attorney has to be conscious of making the link between the accommodation and the disability.