• Interacting with Others Is Major Life Activity
  • February 5, 2005
  • Law Firm: Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP - Chicago Office
  • The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently ruled that the ability to interact with others is a major life activity under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) but that an inability to interact will only be deemed a disability when the impairment severely limits the ability to communicate or connect with others. Jacques v. Dimarzio.

    Conflicts at Work

    The plaintiff, who worked as an assembler of guitar components, told her employer in 1992 that she suffered from severe depression prior to taking medical leave. Thereafter, her relations with her supervisors and co-workers deteriorated and she was ultimately terminated because of her "numerous conflicts with supervisors and ¿ coworkers." After obtaining a right to sue letter from the EEOC, the plaintiff brought three ADA claims against her former employer in district court. The plaintiff prevailed on her claim that she was terminated because she was "regarded" by her employer as having severe problems in her relations with others, and that this inability to interact with others constituted a disability. Finding that the trial court incorrectly instructed the jury on the showing necessary to establish a disability that "substantially limits" the ability to interact with others, the Appellate Court vacated a $190,000 judgment for the plaintiff and remanded the case.

    Conflicting Standards

    In conducting its analysis, the Appellate Court first explained that in order to prevail under the "regarded as" provision of the ADA, a plaintiff must show that the employer regarded the individual as disabled. A plaintiff is disabled within the meaning of the ADA if she suffers from a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The Court focused on whether "interacting with others" is a major life activity and, if so, what showing is necessary for a plaintiff to be considered "substantially limited" in "interacting with others."

    The Court noted a split among appellate courts on this issue, and considered the dissimilar approaches of the First and Ninth Circuits. Where the First Circuit held that "the ability to get along with others" is not a major life activity, the Ninth Circuit ruled that "interacting with others" is an essential and regular function that easily falls within the definition of a major life activity. The Court accepted the Ninth Circuit's premise that "interacting with others" is a "major life activity" but then found that the Ninth Circuit's test for determining when a limitation on this activity is substantial to be unworkable and useless as guidance. Part of the Ninth Circuit's test distinguished mere "cantankerousness," which would not qualify as a substantial limitation, from "consistently high levels of hostility," which would qualify as a substantial limitation, and the Court opined that this distinction would confuse judges, because there is no substantive difference between "cantankerousness" and hostility.

    Standard of Impairment

    In an effort to create a more meaningful standard, the Court ultimately created a wholly new test: that a plaintiff is "substantially limited" in "interacting with others" when the impairment severely limits the fundamental ability to communicate with others. The Court added that this standard is met when a person's ability to "go among other people" or initiate contact with other people and respond to them is severely limited. The Court gave examples of impairments that would satisfy this standard as acute or profound cases of autism, agoraphobia, or depression. Based on the Court's conclusion regarding the proper standard to be applied, the Court held that the district court's jury instruction constituted reversible error and remanded the case for additional proceedings consistent with the opinion.