By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK, Jan 29 (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on
Tuesday said a New York woman who claimed she was dismissed from
her job because of mental illness should have been able to file
for disability retirement benefits even though she missed a
state filing deadline under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in
Manhattan vacated a 2011 decision by Judge Sandra Feuerstein of
the federal district court in Brooklyn to dismiss the claim.
The findings also are in agreement with other federal
appeals court opinions that have favored the federal law over
state statutes. The unanimous opinion was issued by Circuit
Judges Robert Sack and Reena Raggi, as well as Laura Taylor
Swain, a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New
York sitting by designation.
"I think that this is a very important decision because it
affects potentially the rights of many people," said Jo Anne
Simon, an attorney specializing in disability civil rights who
wrote a "friend of the court" brief for the plaintiff.
"State and local statutes have often been the barrier that's
kept people with disabilities from their rights," she said.
The plaintiff, a 57-year-old woman named Mary Jo C. in the
complaint, claimed that Central Islip Public Library fired her
in 2006 because of behavior symptomatic of chronic mental
illness that plagued her for much of her life.
She claimed she was eligible for disability retirement
benefits under New York state law but that her condition
interfered with her ability to apply for them in time to meet a
state deadline of three months after her last day on the job,
according to the complaint.
In 2009, she filed suit in federal court against the library
and the New York State and Local Retirement System after
officials declined to waive the deadline as an accommodation
under the ADA, according to the complaint.
The district court dismissed the claim in 2011. It reasoned
that the filing deadline was an "essential eligibility
requirement" not subject to waiver under the ADA; that the
woman's request was not "reasonable" because it would require
officials to violate state law; and she didn't allege facts
plausible to demonstrate that she was disabled within meaning of
Title II of the ADA, which covers access to public services,
programs and activities.
But the 2nd Circuit said the broad mandate that Congress
gave the ADA to alleviate discrimination for people with
disabilities should outweigh state statutes when reasonable.
The court concluded that Title II of the ADA "does, in some
circumstances, require reasonable departures from standards
established by state laws."
It did affirm, however, the district court's dismissal of
the claim against the library under Title II of the ADA, on the
grounds that it does not apply to employment discrimination.
Title I of the ADA covers employment.
A spokeswoman for the New York state attorney general's
office declined to comment. Laura Shockley, an attorney with
Rivkin Radler who represents the library, declined to comment
through a representative.
"I think it's significant that the Court of Appeals
recognized that in certain instances the ADA is going to trump
state law," said Bill Brooks, the director of the Civil Rights
Litigation Clinic at Tauro College Jacob D. Fuschsberg Law
Center, who represents the plaintiff.
The court noted that New York state already waived deadlines
for disability retirement benefits in some cases, such as for
New York State and Local Retirement System members who are on
unpaid medical leave or who have "a qualifying World Trade
It also cited supportive decisions by the 10th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals in 2009 and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals in 1995. The 7th Circuit had found that "a
discriminatory state law is not a defense to liability under
federal law; it is a source of liability under federal law."
The 2nd Circuit vacated the district's dismissal in regard
to the filing deadline and remanded the claim with instructions
to the district court to grant the plaintiff leave to amend her
The case is Mary Jo. C. v. New York State and Local
Retirement System, Central Islip Public Library, 2nd U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 11-2215.
For the plaintiff: William M. Brooks, Mental Disability Law
Clinic, Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center.
For the State of New York: Cecelia Chang, deputy solicitor
For the Central Islip Public Library: Laura Shockley of
Follow us on Twitter @ReutersLegal | Like us on Facebook