Panel upholds MVC decision in agoraphobia case

A Superior Court Appellate panel has upheld a Division on Civil Rights’ finding that the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) did not unlawfully discriminate when it refused to waive its in-person, digital photographic driver’s license renewal requirement for a woman afflicted with agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder she claimed limited her ability to travel.

Robin B. Wojtkowiak, of Voorhees Township, Camden County, wrote the MVC in August 2012, requesting that the agency waive its in-person renewal requirement because of her disability, and offering to supply a recent digital photograph of herself to meet the State’s requirements.

To support her request, Wojtkowiak provided a doctor’s letter verifying that she “has a long standing history” of agoraphobia and indicating that, while Wojtkowiak is capable of driving, her ability to do so without anxiety is limited to a “safety zone of five miles from her home.”

The MVC denied Wojtkowiak’s request, but offered to accommodate her in other ways. For example, the MVC offered to pre- schedule an appointment for Wojtkowiak at the nearest MVC office – in Cherry Hill, 11 miles from her home – and arrange for her to be the first customer of the day. Wojtkowiak responded by filing a complaint with the Division on Civil Rights, arguing that given her condition, MVC should have come within her safe zone to take her photo, or allowed her to submit a photo, or waived the photo requirement altogether. After interviewing Wojtkowiak, MVC officials, and conducting a site inspection of the MVC and the equipment at issue, the Division issued a Finding of No Probable Cause, which Wojtkowiak then appealed.

In upholding the Division’s finding, the Appellate panel found that, despite the doctor’s letter submitted by Wojtkowiak, there was a “lack of sufficient expert medical evidence” that she was incapable of driving, or being driven to, the nearest MVC agency – even if it was located more than five miles away from her home — on a single occasion.

“Discomfort and anxiety do not necessarily equate to total inability,” the Appellate panel wrote.

The Appellate panel also said Wojtkowiak failed to demonstrate that attempts by the MVC to otherwise accommodate her were unreasonable. The Appellate panel did not consider the question of whether it was technologically feasible – or fiscally and otherwise practical — for the MVC’s Enhanced Digital Driver’s License (EDDL) photo technology unit to be mobilized, saying that the failure by Wojtkowiak to prove her inability to appear in person precluded the need for such a discussion.

Previously, in its Finding of No Probable Cause, the Division on Civil Rights had found that, for legal, technological and security reasons, the MVC could only accept a digital photograph taken on the EDDL camera system, and that the EDDL system was not capable of being mobilized at the time without imposing an undue hardship on the MVC.

“I think we all can empathize with someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, just as we all appreciate the importance of having a valid driver’s license,” said Division Director Craig T. Sashihara. “The MVC – like any business, employer, or public agency – is legally required to provide reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities. We questioned whether Ms. Wojtkowiak’s requested accommodation was ‘reasonable’ and the court questioned whether she demonstrated that she had a disability. But we both left the door open for Ms. Wojtkowiak to ultimately receive the accommodation she seeks should circumstance change.”

The MVC developed and instituted its EDDL system several years ago to comply with federal laws imposing more stringent requirements for State identification cards in keeping with homeland security issues. The EDDL system does not simply take photographs. It captures and stores photographic images and scans all of the other photographs in the camera system’s database for duplicates. The EDDL system integrates a driver’s digital photograph with other driver’s license information and imbeds the photograph into the driver’s license. The process is designed to deter forgery, fraud and replication.

Deputy Attorney General Megan J. Harris and Assistant Attorney General Andrea M. Silkowitz, assigned to the Division of Law, represented the Division on Civil Rights and the MVC in the Appellate matter.

Panel upholds MVC decision in agoraphobia case