A former librarian who contends that a mental condition caused her to miss a state-imposed deadline for seeking disability retirement benefits should be allowed to file a late claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ruled.
The panel held unanimously in Mary Jo C. v. New York State and Local Retirement System, 11-2215, that an accommodation should be made to the plaintiff under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act that is in keeping with the broader goals of the federal act of barring bias based on disability.
The state retirement system and the 57-year-old woman’s former employer, the Central Islip Public Library on Long Island, argued that the public employee retirement system’s rules prohibited her from filing for disability benefits more than three months after she was terminated from her job.
Mary Jo was dismissed in November 2006 for what she called the “result of behaviors that were symptomatic” of a mental illness. She first sought in November 2007 to apply for disability retirement benefits, but was denied during that and all other filing attempts.
She sued in December 2009.
The Second Circuit, in a Jan. 29 ruling by Judge Robert Sack (See Profile), joined by Circuit Judge Reena Raggi (See Profile) and Southern District Judge Laura Taylor Swain (See Profile), sitting by designation, said exceptions have previously been recognized to state and local laws and other rules in the name of accommodating the disabled, including by the New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS) itself.
“New York State already waives or extends the filing deadline for disability retirement benefits for certain classes of individuals: For example, an NYSLRS member on unpaid medical leave may file an application within a year after termination of employment…and an NYSLRS member with ‘a qualifying World Trade Center condition’ faces no deadline whatsoever,” Sack wrote.
The fact that “the State itself waives the deadline in the enumerated circumstances strongly suggests” that the filing deadline is an “essential” eligibility requirement as defined by Title II, the panel determined.
The judges said they also found support for their ruling in PGA Tour v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661 (2001), in which the U.S. Supreme Court required the Professional Golf Association to make a special accommodation for Casey Martin, who needed to use a motorized cart to traverse courses instead of walking because of a circulatory defect in his leg.
Statute ‘Broadly Construed’
The circuit noted that the Martin court, instead of treating the PGA’s rule against competitors using carts as “sacrosanct,” considered whether the “requested modification would fundamentally alter” the nature of the PGA Tour.
“Similarly here, 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,’” the circuit ruled.
As a remedial statute, the ADA must be “broadly construed to effectuate its purpose of providing a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities,” Sack wrote, quoting Noel v. New York City Taxi and Limousine Comm’n, 687 F.3d 63 (2nd Cir. 2012).
Sack reasoned that to allow states to argue that whatever legal requirements they set for programs like New York’s disability retirement system means they are “never subject to reasonable modification” under Title II of the ADA.
“Were we to adopt such a construction of the ADA, the class of ‘rules, policies or practices’ subject to reasonable modification under Title II would be vanishingly small, and nearly all eligibility requirement for the receipt of public service would be non-waivable ‘essential’ eligibility requirements,” he wrote.
The ruling reversed the holding of Eastern District Judge Sandra Feuerstein in Mary Jo C. v. New York State and Local Ret. Sys., 09-cv-5635 (2011), that the plaintiff could not seek a late filing for disability retirement benefits as a “reasonable modification” to her disability under the federal act.
The circuit said she could file an amended claim in district court in which she could, if she elects to, allege facts supporting her claim that she is disabled. Feuerstein questioned the extent of Mary Jo’s disability based on the facts she previously presented to the court about her condition.
The circuit did uphold Feuerstein’s rejection of the plaintiff’s employment discrimination claim against the library on the grounds that public employees’ exclusive remedy against their employers is Title I of the ADA, not Title II.
The panel said Feuerstein properly relied on a Ninth Circuit ruling in Zimmerman v. Oregon Dept. of Justice, 170 F.3d 1169 (1999), which held that Congress did not intend for Title II to apply to employment.
William Brooks, director of the Mental Disability Law Clinic at Touro Law Center, represented the plaintiff.
“This decision ensures that provisions of state law can be the subject of the reasonable accommodation provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which will provide significant protection to people with disabilities who might have been injured in unintended ways by literal applications of state law,” Brooks said in a statement.
Deputy Solicitor General Cecelia Change argued for the retirement system on behalf of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. His office declined to comment on the ruling.
Laura Shockley of Rivkin, Radler in Uniondale represented the Central Islip library.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at email@example.com.