By Ted Olsen
Different sections of the Americans with Disabilities Act accomplish different ends. Title I addresses employment issues; Title II addresses participation in public services, programs, or activities; Title III generally protects disabled persons’ access to the goods, services, privileges and advantages of “public accommodations.” The U.S. Second Circuit Court or Appeals recently emphasized the differences between the sections in ruling that a public employee cannot pursue disability discrimination claims against her former employer under Title II. Mary Jo C v. New York State Local Retirement System, No. 11-2215 (2d Cir. Jan. 29, 2013).
In Mary Jo C, a mentally disabled employee at a public library was discharged, allegedly because of behaviors “that were symptomatic of her mental illness.” (She did not contest her dismissal.) The fired employee did not file an application for disability retirement benefits within three months of her separation, as required by New York state law, again, allegedly because of her mental disability. The Library declined to file an application on her behalf, as requested by her brother, although it had the authority to do so. The Library also denied the brother’s request that her dismissal be reclassified as a leave of absence, which would have extended the time period for filing a benefits application. After the plaintiff’s condition improved, she applied to the New York State Local Retirement System for benefits. The application was denied as untimely, and the Retirement System refused to waive the three-month filing deadline.
The plaintiff sued, claiming that both the Library and Retirement System violated Title II of the ADA – the plaintiff asserted that the Library should have filed a benefits application for her or reclassified her dismissal as a leave of absence, and the Retirement System should have waived the filing deadline. The Second Circuit ruled that Title II does not apply to employment discrimination claims, “at least not those that are covered by Title I.” In support of its conclusion, the Court noted that Titles I and II are enforced by different government agencies, have different administrative exhaustion requirements, provide different remedies, and protect differently defined sets of disabled individuals. This ruling was inconsistent with Department of Justice regulations under Title II, which support employment discrimination claims.
The Court did permit the plaintiff to pursue her Title II claim against the Retirement System. It ruled that the ADA preempts inconsistent state laws, meaning that the Retirement System could not conclusively defend its action by relying on the three-month filing deadline required by New York state law. Such a deadline was ruled to be subject to reasonable modification or waiver, when necessary to permit a disabled person the benefit of such programs.
Mary Jo C is a good example of how creative litigants are asserting that various portions of the ADA overlap, giving them cumulative remedies. As in Mary Jo C, some litigants assert claims under Title II; other litigants raise discrimination claims under Title III. Decisions like Mary Jo C put a helpful limit on the obligations of public employers to their disabled employees.