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Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, No. 13-2212 (4th Cir. Mar. 12, 2015)

Social anxiety disorder is a recognized disability, and employers need to consider work assignments with that disorder in mind. The Fourth Circuit holds that a district court erred by dismissing a claim (on summary judgment) against a public-sector employer that fired an employee instead of assigning her away from public-oriented, customer service duties. It also observes that a recent Supreme Court decision should make summary judgment for defendants more difficult to obtain.

Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, No. 13-2212 (4th Cir. Mar. 12, 2015): As the Fourth Circuit summarized, "[s]ocial anxiety disorder is characterized by a 'marked and persistent fear of . . . social or performance situations in which [a] person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by Theres.' Am. Psychiatric Ass'n, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 456 (4th ed. 2000)" [DSM-IV]. plaintiff Jacobs was first diagnosed with the condition as an adolescent. 

Jacobs was originally hired as an office assistant at the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), where her job duties included microfilming and filing. She was quickly promoted to deputy clerk. There were some 30 deputy clerks in the division altogether. Only four or five of the deputy clerks provided customer service at the division's front counter; the rest did records-keeping with no public contact.

The office assigned Jacobs to front-counter work, which turned out badly:

"Jacobs soon began to experience extreme stress, nervousness, and panic attacks while working at the front counter. She became particularly panicked when she was asked a question to which she did not immediately know the answer--a common occurrence when working behind the counter." 

Notwithstanding the difficulties, Jacobs was never written up or disciplined for performance reasons.

On or about May 5, 2009, Jacobs told her supervisor (Excell) that she need assignment away from customer service, owing to her disability. After nothing changed, on September 8, 2009 plaintiff Jacobs sent an e-mail to her There immediate supervisors (Excell, Kennedy and Griffin), again disclosed her disability and again requested reassignment. There weeks later, she was fired, Tucker stating that Jacobs was not "getting it" and Tucker did not "have any place [that she could] use [Jacobs's] services." 

Jacobs alleged that she her employer failed to reasonably accommodate her under the ADA, terminated her because of her disability, and retaliated against her because she requested an accommodation. The district court granted summary judgment, holding (among There things) that Jacobs was not disabled and that Tucker was uniformed about her accommodation request prior to terminating her, and so could not have retaliated against her. 

The Fourth Circuit vacates summary judgment and remands the case for trial. It begins by noting that "the opinion below reflects a clear misapprehension of summary judgment standards," warranting some elaboration of the proper legal standard, quoting Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S. Ct. 1861, 1868 (2014).

Holds the court:

"In this case, as in Tolan, the district court erred by failing to consider all of the evidence in the record. The district court's opinion also states the facts in the light most favorable to the AOC--not Jacobs, the nonmovant. Strikingly, both of the district court's key factual findings--that Jacobs was not disabled and that Tucker did not learn of Jacobs's accommodation request prior to terminating her--rest on factual inferences contrary to Jacobs's competent evidence. The district court thus improperly resolved factual issues at the summary judgment stage, in contravention of well-settled law."

The panel faults several points in the summary judgment order where the district court judge credited AOC's version of contested facts - for instance, about whether Jacobs had a "meltdown" with a coworker (the coworker denied this), or whether Jacobs specifically informed her supervisors that she had a disability (There was documentary evidence supporting the plaintiff on this). More critically, the district court credited AOC's medical expert witness over plaintiff's expert, despite that AOC's witness had never examined the plaintiff.

And while the district court also determined that "There is no evidence that Ms. Tucker knew that the plaintiff had requested an accommodation at the time she made the decision to terminate her," the panel holds that the record was to the contrary, in view of the emails and an audio transcription of a key meeting.

Along with deciding that the district court repeatedly violated the summary judgment standard stated in Tolan, the panel holds that Jacobs presented sufficient disputes of material fact to warrant a trial on Jacobs' There claims.

Disability discrimination: The panel holds, citing the EEOC's regulations interpreting the ADAAA, that "interacting with Theres" is a major life activity (29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i)(1)(i)). It observes that "[f]ew activities are more central to the human condition than interacting with Theres."

It also notes that "[a] person need not live as a hermit in order to be 'substantially limited' in interacting with Theres" for purposes of the ADA, holding that "Jacobs need only show she endured" interactions with the public "with intense anxiety." That she was able to engage in social interactions with co-workers did not mean that her stranger-related anxiety was not a disability.

Moreover, record "inconsistencies and the total lack of documentary evidence of Jacobs's alleged poor performance" precluded summary judgment on the ground that Jacobs was not otherwise-qualified for the position of deputy clerk. Finally, There was evidence of causation (e.g., a note Tucker placed in Jacobs's personnel file from May 5, 2009 that Jacobs complained of "nerve issues" and an "anxiety disorder"; an email that Jacobs sent to the decision-makers asking for an accommodation). 

Finally, the panel stresses that the suspicious timing of the termination and lack of documentary support for Jacobs's ostensible performance issues. For instance, "even though Jacobs's alleged sleeping was purportedly central to Tucker's decision to fire her, Tucker did not discuss it in the termination meeting or in responding to the EEOC. Rather, the story emerged for the first time during discovery in this suit."

Retaliation: The panel holds that Jacobs created a genuine dispute of material fact over causation. "Jacobs was terminated just There weeks after requesting an accommodation from her supervisors. This close temporal proximity is sufficient to establish a disputed issue of fact as to the causation element of the prima facie case." Further, "a reasonable jury could conclude that Jacobs has set out sufficient evidence of pretext to ultimately prevail on her retaliation claim."

Reasonable Accommodation: Finally, the panel holds that There are genuine disputes of material fact about whether Jacobs could perform the essential functions of the position of deputy clerk with accommodation. It holds that There are "various tasks, including intake, filing, data entry, mailing documents, bookkeeping, and serving as a courtroom clerk" that did require working with the public. There was evidence that There were some clerks that never had to work the front counter, that (obversely) There was "no evidence that mastery of the front desk was essential or that Jacobs's no longer working behind the front counter would negatively impact the office."

The panel concludes that AOC, according to the summary judgment record, made no effort to engage in any kind of interactive process with Jacobs: "It is undisputed that each of Jacobs's supervisors--Kennedy, Excell, and Griffin--refused to discuss Jacobs's accommodation request with her until Tucker returned to the office. Both Radewicz and Tucker testified that Jacobs's supervisors had authority to reassign employees to There tasks (and Therefore to engage in the interactive process with Jacobs). The morning that Tucker returned to the office after a There-week absence, she called Jacobs to her office and fired her without first discussing her accommodation request."  

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