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Fourth Circuit Interprets ADAAA Broadly in Overturning Summary Judgment

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in a recent case on appeal from the Eastern District of North Carolina, interpreted the 2008 Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADAAA) broadly and reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant. The opinion contains a number of holdings favorable to ADA plaintiffs, including: 1) that the EEOC’s interpretation of what constitutes a “major life activity” under the ADA deserves Chevron deference from the courts; 2) that reasonable accommodations may include the restructuring of a plaintiff’s job, including the trading of some duties; and 3) that an employer’s retrospective addition of reasons for termination may bolster evidence of pretext on a retaliation claim.

In Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, a former deputy clerk at the courthouse in New Hanover County, North Carolina asked that her employer accommodate her social anxiety disorder by reassigning her from providing customer service at the front counter of the courthouse to a job which would require less personal interaction. The employer waited three weeks before acting on the request and then terminated the deputy clerk.

The Fourth Circuit examined the EEOC’s determination that “interacting with others” qualifies as a major life activity under the ADAAA. Using the familiar Chevron standard, the Court noted that the ADAAA explicitly states that the list of major life activities within the statute is not exhaustive. The Court, in deferring to the EEOC’s determinations, said: “If ‘bending’ and ‘lifting’ are major life activities [within the meaning of the ADAAA], it is certainly reasonable for the EEOC to conclude that interacting with others falls in the same category. Identifying ‘interacting with others’ as a major life activity comparable to ‘caring for oneself,’ ‘speaking,’ ‘learning,’ and ‘communicating’ advances the broad remedial purposes of the ADA.”

The Jacobs Court also analyzed the proposed accommodation restructuring Jacobs’ job, including trading some of her duties with other deputy clerks. In examining whether working at the front counter was an essential function of the job, the Court noted that not all deputy clerks were required to work behind the counter and found no evidence that a lack of mastery of “front counter duties” would impair a deputy clerk’s ability to perform other duties of the job. Thus, the Court found there was evidence that working at the front counter was not an essential function. In reviewing the proposed accommodation – in which Jacobs was assigned to “non-front counter duties” – the Fourth Circuit reiterated that while the ADAAA mandates restructuring of job duties in some circumstances, it does not require an employer to increase the workload of other employees. But in this case, the Court determined that the proposed accommodation did not increase others’ workload; instead, the proposed accommodation merely asked the employer to shift which workers were assigned to which tasks.

The Court also examined the issue of pretext in the employer’s shifting explanations for terminating Jacobs. Applying the McDonnell-Douglas burden shifting framework, the Fourth Circuit found that Jacobs successfully rebutted the numerous legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for Jacobs’s termination offered by the employer, in part, due to the fact that Administrative Office of the Courts continually asserted new justifications for the termination throughout the course of litigation. The Court ultimately found that the numerous and shifting reasons provided sufficient dispute for Jacobs to proceed on her claim.

This case will have major impacts in favor of plaintiffs in the Fourth Circuit. The Court clearly articulated that a broad definition of disability, as interpreted by the EEOC, must be given deference by courts within the circuit. The Jacobs Court also provides helpful guidance on the definitions of “essential function” and “reasonable accommodation,” placing heavier burdens on the employer to show that a duty is indeed essential and that a proposed accommodation will require more than just some creativity in shifting or reassigning duties to be unreasonable. Finally, this holding now demonstrates that employers will have a more difficult time overcoming an assertion of pretext by plaintiffs if the employer has put forward a number of different explanations for termination, even when all of those explanations on their own would qualify as legitimate, non-discriminatory decisions. Employers in the Fourth Circuit now have a tougher sell in defending ADA discrimination claims.

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