Hot Employment Topics for 2014 - Part I: The New World of Disabilities Discrimination

by Jackson Walker

This is the first of a seven-part series describing "Hot Employment Topics for 2014." Part I focuses upon "The New World of Disabilities Discrimination."

Adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) in 2008, and such amendments became effective in 2009 for claims arising after the effective date. The stated purpose of the legislation was to reinstate a broad scope of protection under the ADA, specifically intended to override Supreme Court decisions in Toyota Motor Mfg., Inc. v. Williams (2002) and Sutton v. United Airlines (2000), which had strictly construed the term "disability." In the Williams case, the Court had determined that someone injured for less than one year was not "disabled;" in the Sutton case, the Court had determined that a person who could "mitigate" his or her condition by medication, glasses or some other reasonable means was not "disabled."

Because claims arising after the effective date took some time to make their way through the administrative and judicial pipelines, review of the ADAAA at the Circuit Court of Appeals level has only recently burgeoned. Early indications from the federal courts of appeals indicate that the ADAAA will present fresh challenges for employers who must confront the guidelines within which to comply.

Summers v. Altarum Institute Corp.–Temporary Injuries as Disabilities. Such challenges are exemplified by a new decision in Summers v. Altarum Institute Corp. (Jan. 23, 2014), issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

In that case, an able bodied employee who worked as a "senior analyst" for a government contractor fell and injured himself while exiting a commuter train on his way to a work assignment. The injuries were severe, and the employee required significant surgery and leave time. His ability to walk was impaired, and doctors projected that he would need at least 7-8 months of recuperation before being able to resume normal duties. His employer encouraged him to seek short-term disability benefits and indicated that some effort would be made to determine whether the employee could work from home during his recovery. However, the employer ultimately did not discuss any accommodation for the employee's work schedule and instead terminated his employment because he could not perform his duties on site.

The employee sued under the ADAAA, and his claims were dismissed by the district court, which held that because he had a "temporary condition" which would not last more than one year, he was "not disabled." The employee challenged this determination at the Fourth Circuit, which confronted head on the scope and meaning of the term "disability" under the ADAAA.

The Fourth Circuit overturned the dismissal of the complaint. It noted that based upon the wording and legislative intent expressed in the ADAAA, the statute now favored an interpretation which promoted "broad coverage of individuals." This emphasis included within its reach the statutory interpretation of the term "substantially limits," which defines a disability as "substantially limiting one or more major life activities." The Court of Appeals also noted the EEOC's regulations under the ADAAA, including a statement that even "effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting."

Identifying itself as the first Court of Appeals to apply the ADAAA's expanded definition of "disability," the Court held that the employee was "disabled," even if only for 7-8 months. The Court specifically rejected the lower court's finding that the employee could not pursue a claim under the ADAAA because he could have continued to work in a wheelchair while convalescing; it further rejected the employer's claim that one who is expected to heal fully from a temporary impediment cannot be "disabled," and that an able-bodied person who is injured temporarily cannot be "disabled."

Neely v. PSEG Texas, Ltd. P'ship. (Need to prove existence of a "disability"); Mann v. Louisiana High Sch. Athletic Ass'n. (Need to show substantial limitations in a major life activity). On the other side of the ledger are two new decisions by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

In Neely v. PSEG Texas, Ltd. P'ship, 735 F.3d 242, an employee sued under the ADAAA claiming he was disabled because he suffered from major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. At trial, the central issue was the wording of two jury interrogatories, both of which asked if the plaintiff was "a qualified individual with a disability." The employee claimed that the inclusion of the words "with a disability" was contrary to the requirements of the ADAAA, contending that the ADAAA had replaced the phrase "qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual" with "qualified individual on the basis of disability" to define an appropriate Plaintiff under the statute. The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, stating that while the ADAAA had broadened the definition of disability, it had not eliminated the term or the need for a plaintiff to prove the existence of a disability.

In Mann v. Louisiana High Sch. Athletic Ass'n, 535 Fed. Appx. 405, a high school football player sought an injunction to allow him to play in the upcoming season, which had been blocked by a determination that he was subject to a "transfer rule" rendering him ineligible to play for one year following his transfer from one school to another within the same district. The student claimed that his transfer was a result of his anxiety disorder disability, which should excuse him from coverage under the transfer rule. He thus contended that the failure to excuse him from the transfer rule violated the ADAAA.

The trial court enjoined the Athletic Association from enforcing the transfer rule, holding that enforcing the rule in this situation violated the ADAAA. The Fifth Circuit reversed, determining that while the ADAAA lowered the standard required to show existence of a disability, it did not eliminate the obligation of a plaintiff to demonstrate substantial limitation in a major life activity. Thus, the plaintiff's claim of impairment, standing alone, did not make him disabled for statutory purposes because he conceded he was able-bodied sufficiently to play football.

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Jackson Walker

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