State Trooper’s ADA Disability Discrimination Claim Survives Dismissal, Notwithstanding Doctor’s Note

In Miller v. Kendall, No. 14-CV-393, 2016 WL 4472748 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 25, 2016), the court held that plaintiff plausibly alleged disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The court declined to adopt a Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation to dismiss plaintiff’s ADA claim.

This decision addresses the issue of what constitutes “essential functions” of one’s job in the context of such a claim.

The law, as summarized by the court:

To state a claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must allege, among other things, that he or she is a “qualified individual.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). The ADA defines a “qualified individual” as a person “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such person holds or desires.” Id. § 12111(8) (emphasis added). And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines the term “essential functions” to mean “the fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with a disability holds or desires.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(1). “[E]ssential functions do[ ] not,” however, “include the marginal functions of the position.”

Initially, the court held that plaintiff plausibly alleged that he could perform the “essential functions” of his job:

The primary issue … is whether [plaintiff] has plausibly alleged that, with or without a reasonable accommodation, he can perform the “essential functions” of a New York State Trooper. The Plaintiff’s sole allegation on this score is that he was and is able to perform the functions of his job. Plaintiff has been employed with the Defendant since 1987. This barebones allegation pushes the envelope on the minimum required to survive a motion to dismiss. But, as the EEOC’s definition of “essential functions” demonstrates, the nature of a job’s essential functions is a fact-bound question ill-suited for resolution on a motion to dismiss. The Plaintiff’s allegation therefore sufficiently alleges that [the Plaintiff] could perform the essential functions of [his] job…particularly since [he] was apparently capable of doing so before the events giving rise to this case.

The rejected defendants’ argument that plaintiff’s claim was foreclosed by a doctor’s note he provided to his employer:

The Defendants next argue that the Plaintiff’s other allegations undercut his claim that he could, in fact, perform the “essential functions” of his job. This argument is based on the Plaintiff’s allegation that, “[o]n June 17, 2014 [,] [he] deliver[ed] a doctor’s note to Defendant….This note indicated that plaintiff’s doctor requested that plaintiff be excused from work due to stress in the work place. This note also state[d] that plaintiff is being treated for depression.” FAC ¶ 36. The Defendants argue that the Plaintiff “cannot claim that that he is qualified for the essential functions of his job when his physician is saying he cannot continue to work for the good of his health.” Docket No. 35 at 6. Put differently, the Defendants argue that the Plaintiff’s claim concerning his doctor’s note “is a factual allegation affirmatively asserting that he is not qualified to perform any of the functions of his job, essential or not.” Id. The Plaintiff responds by arguing that the Defendant’s interpretation of the doctor’s note “omits the possibility of a modified work schedule in the form of leave.” Docket No. 36 at 4.
The issue, then, is how to interpret the Plaintiff’s allegation concerning his doctor’s note. If, on the one hand, the note is interpreted to mean that the Plaintiff cannot work at all, then the Defendant may be correct that the Plaintiff has not alleged that he can perform the “essential functions” of his job. If, however, the note is simply a request that the Plaintiff be placed on leave, then it might be an allegation supporting a request for a reasonable accommodation.
The standard of review for a motion to dismiss resolves this dispute. It is well-settled that, when assessing whether a complaint states a claim upon which relief may be granted, a court must “constru[e] the complaint liberally, accepting all factual inferences in the complaint as true, and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor.” Concord Ass’c L.P. v. Entm’t Properties Trust, 817 F.3d 46, 52 (2d Cir. 2016) (quotation marks omitted). Thus, when an allegation is open to two competing interpretations—as paragraph 36 of the First Amended Complaint is—the Court must interpret the allegation in the Plaintiff’s favor, so long as that interpretation is reasonable. In this case, neither party suggests that the other party’s interpretation of paragraph 36 is unreasonable. The Court must therefore interpret paragraph 36, not as an admission that the Plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of his job, but, rather, as a request for a reasonable accommodation.
Thus, the Plaintiff has plausibly alleged that he could perform the “essential functions” of his job, either with or without a reasonable accommodation.
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