Judge Myrna Perez, nominated by President Biden to the Second Circuit, cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision that reversed a lower court and ruled that a clerk-typist could go forward with her claim that officials had failed to reasonably accommodate her disability and ultimately fired her improperly. This was despite a dissent by Trump judge Richard Sullivan, who would have denied the woman her day in court. The August 2023 ruling was in Tafolla v Heilig.
What is this case about?
Kim Taffolla had worked as a clerk-typist in the Suffolk County District Attorneys office for five years. She suffered a serious spinal injury when her car was rear-ended and then sent notes from her doctor’s office to her boss explaining that she would be unable to perform certain physical duties. In particular the notes explained that as a result of her injury, Taffolla should not be “bending” over, “pushing”, or twisting, and should not lift any object over five pounds. This made it impossible for her to do archiving of information from hard copies of closed cases into a database, which often required such physical activities. She asked for an accommodation so that she would not do archiving, a task that many others in the office could and did perform.
Her supervisors were skeptical, arguing that the case files often weighed less than five pounds, and pushed her to either do the task (except as to files weighing more than five pounds) or take disability leave. She tried to do archiving, but this “caused her pain,” and she reluctantly took disability leave. After a year of accumulated disability leave, the office fired Taffolla. She filed a lawsuit, contending that the office had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to reasonably accommodate her disability and by retaliating against her for raising the disability claim.
After some discovery but without a trial, the lower court granted summary judgment against Taffolla and in favor of the office. She appealed to the Second Circuit.
What did the Second Circuit majority and Judge Perez decide and why is it important?
Judge Perez cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision that reversed the district court and ruled that Kim Tafolla should have her day in court on her disability and retaliation claims. Based on the evidence in the record, the majority explained, a reasonable jury could find that archiving was not an “essential function” of Tafolla’s job, that county officials had “failed to provide a reasonable workplace accommodation for her disability,” and that they had improperly retaliated against her for raising the disability claim by forcing her to take disability leave and then firing her.
Despite Trump Judge Sullivan’s dissent siding with the lower court, the majority directed the district court to give Tafolla the opportunity to prove her case to a jury. In particular, the majority emphasized the importance of ensuring that questions concerning the reasonableness of an accommodation generally be “resolved by a factfinder” –in this case a jury, not a judge on summary judgment.
In addition to giving Kim Tafolla her day in court on her disability claims, this decision is important by making clear to lower courts, particularly in the Second Circuit in New York, Connecticut and Vermont, that judges should not themselves resolve disputed disability claims on summary judgment. Instead, people with disabilities like Kim Tafolla should have the opportunity to prove their case to a jury. In addition, the decision provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judicial nominees like Judge Perez by President Biden.