Raleigh federal judge rebuked by Fourth Circuit in disabilty discrimination case | News
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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Raleigh federal judge rebuked by Fourth Circuit in disabilty discrimination case

Posted by on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 7:00 AM

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which governs North Carolina's federal courts, slapped a Raleigh judge on the wrist by reversing one of his recent orders, citing his failure to consider all the evidence in a disability discrimination case.

Judge Terrence Boyle, who serves on the bench of the Eastern District of North Carolina, had dismissed a lawsuit brought by a New Hanover court clerk who has a social anxiety disorder. The clerk, who'd been assigned a customer service role at the front counter of her office, was fired from her job three weeks after she requested to be reassigned to a role with less social interaction. She claims she was terminated because of her condition.

The INDY isn't naming the clerk because of the sensitivities surrounding mental illness. She filed her lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, bringing it against the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and various supervisors.

The Fourth Circuit remanded the case to District Court for continued litigation. In its 46-page opinion published March 12, the court reprimanded Boyle, stating, "Strikingly, both of [Boyle's] key factual findings—that [the clerk] was not disabled and that [her supervisor] did not learn of [the clerk's] accommodation request prior to terminating her—rest on factual inferences contrary to [the clerk's] competent evidence."

The Fourth Circuit cited numerous errors by Boyle. Among them:
  • He accepted the AOC's contention that the clerk had a "melt-down' with a co-worker when, in fact, the co-worker denied the outburst had occurred
  • He suggested the the clerk informed her supervisor she had mere "social issues" and was "nervous" when, in fact, the clerk told the supervisor she had a bona fide social anxiety disorder
  • He stated the clerk didn't tell anyone she was disabled when, in fact, the clerk told her supervisor that her anxiety issues impacted her work
  • He adopted the AOC's claim that the clerk didn't consent to being examined by a doctor when, in fact, it was the AOC that didn't respond to the clerk's offer to proceed with such an examination 
  • He concluded the clerk was not disabled as defined by the American Psychiatric Association when, in fact, a forensic psychologist concluded that she was
  • He determined there was no evidence that the clerk's supervisor knew about the clerk's request for reassignment prior to her decision to fire the clerk—when, in fact, the clerk had emailed her request to the supervisor
The clerk was hired in 2009 as an office assistant. One month later she was promoted to deputy clerk, and tasked with providing customer service at the front counter.  At the time, 30 deputy clerks worked in the criminal division, but only four or five were responsible for providing customer service. The remaining clerks did not engage in face-to-face interaction with the public.

After her promotion, the clerk began to experience extreme stress, nervousness and panic attacks while working at the front counter, particularly when she didn't know the answer to a question. She reported to her supervisor not feeling healthy at the front counter. The supervisor reported the conversation to her own supervisor, Brenda Tucker.

A few months later the clerk sent an email to three supervisors disclosing her disability and, again, requested reassignment. Tucker, who had the final say on reassignments, was on vacation. The clerk requested to take accrued leave until Tucker returned, but her request was denied. 

Upon returning from vacation, Tucker called the clerk into her office, where a printout of the clerk's email was sitting on her desk, with handwritten annotations. During the meeting, Tucker terminated the clerk's employment because, according to Tucker, the clerk was not "getting it," and that the office did not "have any place [that she could] use [her] services." Tucker denied knowledge of the clerk's social anxiety disorder prior to her decision to fire her. 

After the clerk sued for wrongful termination, Boyle granted the AOC's motion to have the case dismissed, ruling that the clerk was not disabled as a matter of law, that she had failed to establish a case of disability discrimination, and that there was no evidence to suggest that Tucker knew of the clerk's request for an accommodation. 

But the Fourth Circuit ruled that Boyle failed to consider all the evidence, and that he stated the facts in the light most favorable to the AOC, when he should have stated the facts in the light most favorable to the clerk.

The Fourth Circuit also noted that the clerk had never received a negative performance review, evaluation or written warning, and that her superiors never documented their purported justifications for firing her. In addition, the circuit judges reasoned that the clerk's superiors could have accommodated her reassignment request by moving her away from the front counter, to work among the majority of other clerks who do not provide customer service.

The clerk's appeal was supported by the National Disability Rights Network, the National Alliance on Mental Illness North Carolina, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Mental Health America, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 
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