Second Circuit Severely Limits ADA Claims Against Government Employers

February 28, 2013 | Appeals | Employment & Labor

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ruled that a former employee of the Central Islip Public Library may not bring an employment discrimination claim against the library under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

The circuit court’s decision, in which Rivkin Radler LLP represented the library, resolves an issue in the Second Circuit that has divided circuit courts across the country. 

The Second Circuit’s opinion, in Mary Jo C. v. N.Y. State and Local Retirement System, No. 11-2215 (2d Cir. Jan. 29, 2013), should have significant practical ramifications.  For one thing, it should decrease the number of employment related ADA lawsuits brought against local governments in New York and elsewhere throughout the Second Circuit. Additionally, it should decrease the damages ultimately recoverable by plaintiffs who file employment discrimination lawsuits against government employers under Title I of the ADA.

Moreover, to the extent that courts in jurisdictions across the country find the circuit court’s decision and analysis persuasive, the ruling should have the same consequences there.

Background

The plaintiff in this case alleged that her job as a librarian at the Central Islip library was terminated because of behavior symptomatic of her chronic mental illness. She asserted that she would have been eligible for disability retirement benefits under New York law, but that her mental illness interfered with her ability to comply with New York’s strictly enforced filing deadline for those benefits. When the New York State and Local Retirement System (the “NYSLRS”) rejected her request to waive the deadline, and when the library rejected her request to assist her in applying for the benefits or, in the alternative, extend the deadline by reclassifying her termination as a leave of absence, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit.

The plaintiff sued the library and the NYSLRS in a federal district court in New York, alleging that the library had violated Title II of the ADA because the library had not filed an application on the plaintiff’s behalf and because it had refused to reclassify her termination as a leave of absence. The plaintiff also contended that the NYSLRS had violated Title II by failing to provide a requested “reasonable accommodation” by waiving the filing deadline. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit, finding, among other things, that Title II of the ADA does not apply to employment discrimination, and the plaintiff appealed.

The Circuit Court’s Decision

In its decision, the circuit court observed that the ADA forbids discrimination against persons with disabilities in three major areas of public life: employment, which is covered by Title I of the ADA; public services, programs, and activities, which are the subject of Title II; and public accommodations, which are covered by Title III. It then decided that the plaintiff, an employee of the library, could bring an employment discrimination claim against the library under Title I of the ADA but not under Title II.

The Second Circuit reasoned that Title II provides that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” In examining the term “services, programs, or activities,” the circuit court ruled that it was clear that the term did not relate to employment by a public entity but, instead, referred to services the government provides to the public.

The Second Circuit therefore upheld the district court’s decision dismissing the plaintiff’s Title II claim against the library (while reversing the decision in favor of the NYSLRS on other grounds).

Significance of the Ruling

Federal circuit and district courts across the country have reached different conclusions with respect to whether a government employee can assert an employment discrimination claim against his or her employer under Title II of the ADA. The split ultimately may have to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Second Circuit, however, the decision in the Mary Jo C. case undoubtedly will have important ramifications for government employers by limiting the number of claims that their current or former employees will be able to assert against them and by limiting the damages that ultimately may be awarded in the cases that are filed.

That is because Title I imposes various limitations on suits against employers that are absent from Title II. For example, plaintiffs filing suit under Title I first must exhaust administrative remedies – including the requirement that they file a charge of employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) within 180 days after the alleged discriminatory act – but plaintiffs filing suit under Title II are not required to exhaust administrative remedies before they go to court. Plaintiffs who do not meet the EEOC requirement generally are not permitted to assert Title I claims against their government employers.

In addition, Title I caps the amount of compensatory damages a plaintiff may recover against a defendant employer depending on the number of employees employed by the employer and it completely disallows punitive damages in suits against governmental employers; by contrast, Title II has no such limitations. Thus, a successful plaintiff under Title I may recover less than he or she would have if the claim had been asserted under Title II.

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