Monday, February 4, 2013

The ADA's reasonable accommodation requirement may trump state law

The Court of Appeals has held that the Americans with Disabilities Act may require the state to waive certain eligibility deadlines if waiver would reasonably accommodate a disabled person under the Act.

The case is Mary Jo C. v. New York State and Local Retirement System, decided on January 29. This case is an Americans with Disabilities Act tour de force, giving us a tutorial on the ADA and what it all means. The case arose when plaintiff, a librarian who suffers from a mental illness, was unable to meet the strict deadline for classifying the termination of her employment as a leave of absence. She "failed to recognize" the three-month filing deadline "because of her mental illness." That reclassification was necessary for plaintiff to recover disability retirement benefits.The district court threw out the case because the plaintiff missed the deadline. The Second Circuit reinstates the case.

Two competing legal rules clash in this case: New York's deadline for filing disability retirement claims, and the ADA's requirement that public entities reasonably accommodate the disability if the accommodation does not interfere with essential eligibility requirements. A requirement is essential if waiving the requirement would fundamentally alter the program's nature. The Second Circuit (Sack, Raggi and Swain [D.J.]) says that a formal eligibility requirement is not necessarily essential to the program. "we read the ADA to require us to analyze the importance of an eligibility requirement for a public program or benefit, rather than to defer automatically to whatever 'formal legal eligibility requirements' may exist, no matter how unimportant for the program in question they may be." A contrary interpretation of the ADA would undercut that statute's broad remedial purpose, the Second Circuit says. "The district court's view that the ADA's reference to 'essential eligibility requirements' necessarily refers to each and every formal legal eligibility requirement imposed for participation in a public program or benefit is mistaken."

The Court next determines whether the retirement benefits deadline is an essential component of the retirement program. It is not. Congress wanted Title II of the ADA to "sweep broadly." And, as state law cannot preempt federal law, "the ADA's reasonable modification requirement contemplates modification to state laws, thereby permitting preemption of inconsistent state laws, when necessary to effectuate Title II's reasonable modification provision." But there is some judicial modesty here: the Court does not say that all state deadlines must be waived in the interests of accommodating the disabled. "Because 'the determination of what constitutes reasonable modification is [a] highly fact-specific, . . . case-by-case inquiry,' '[w]hether the plaintiff['s] proposed alternative' to New York's filing deadline 'constitute[s] [a] reasonable modification[] or [a] fundamental alteration[] cannot be determined as a matter of law on the record before us.'" On this motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals holds that the district court should not have granted Rule 12 dismissal of plaintiff's Title II claim against the state retirement system. The take-away is that in some cases, the ADA's reasonable accommodation requirement will override state law.

One final holding in the case: employment discrimination cases under the ADA may only be filed under Title I of the Act, not Title II, which prohibits discrimination in government programs. The Court of Appeals finds that Congress wanted Title I to cover employment discrimination, not Title II. Employment is not a government program, at least in the way that most people interpret the word "program." In a related claim, the plaintiff sued her former employer, a library, under the Act. She alleged that the library failed to file a retirement application on her behalf. While there is a split among the courts on this issue, the Court of Appeals sides with the library's position on this one.

1 comment:

William Goren, J.D., LL.M. said...

Great minds think alike. Once again, wait a second and myself have blogged on the same case simultaneously. For a different perspective, check out