• ADA Amendments Act Overrules Prior Supreme Court Decisions on What Constitutes a Disability
  • October 26, 2008 | Author: Alissa Raddatz
  • Law Firm: Faegre & Benson LLP - Minneapolis Office
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), signed into law on September 25, specifically rejects United States Supreme Court decisions that have formed the basis of disability law for many years. The amendments disavow what Congress describes as the Supreme Court's narrow interpretation of who is disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and direct that the ADA should provide a "broad scope of protection." It is expected that millions of workers who were not protected prior to the passage of the ADAAA will now be protected under the statute and entitled to reasonable accommodations.

    Interpretation of Disability Expands

    In most cases, to establish a disability discrimination claim an individual must (1) have a disability, (2) be qualified for the job, (3) suffer an adverse action, and (4) show that the employer's business justification for the adverse action was pretextual. In addition, an employer must provide reasonable accommodations to an individual with a disability unless it would result in an undue hardship to the employer. To have a "disability" means to (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual, (2) have a record of such an impairment, or (3) be regarded as having such an impairment. In the past, many disability cases were dismissed because the employee could not demonstrate the first aspect that he was disabled. While the amendments do not change the actual definition of disability, they add new provisions that have the effect of expanding the definition to encompass more health conditions. The ADAAA will now require a broader interpretation of the term "disability" and expand employers' obligations to more individuals.

    Amendments Reject Supreme Court Decisions

    The amendments reject the Supreme Court's holding in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), which addressed the question of how severe a condition must be in order to qualify as a protected disability. In Williams, the Court determined that the employee's carpal tunnel syndrome was not a disability because it was not "substantially limiting." Specifically, the Court held that for an impairment to be a disability it must prevent or severely restrict an individual from "performing activities that are of central importance to most people's daily lives." Williams was seen as a victory for employers because it made clear that "substantially limits" should be interpreted strictly and only employees with severe impairments were protected by the statute. Although the amendments reject the Williams interpretation of "substantially limits," they do not offer a definition of the term. Rather, the amendments state that it is the "expectation that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will revise that portion of its current regulations that defines the term ‘substantially limits' as ‘significantly restricted' to be consistent with this Act, including the amendments made by this Act." At this time, there is no indication of when the EEOC will issue these regulations.

    The amendments also reject the Supreme Court's decision in Sutton v. United Airlines Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999). Sutton held that the question of whether someone is disabled must be determined with reference to all mitigating measures. For example, if a person was "substantially limited in a daily life activity" without the use of medication, but was not substantially limited when he or she used medication, the mitigating measure of medication would remove the impairment from the definition of disability under the ADA. The amendments prohibit consideration of mitigating measures. Such measures that may no longer be considered when determining whether a condition is a disability include: (1) medication, medical supplies, equipment, low-vision devices (which do not include ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses), prosthetics including limbs and devices, hearing aids and cochlear implants or other implantable hearing devices, mobility devices, oxygen therapy equipment and supplies; (2) the use of assistive technology; (3) reasonable accommodations or auxiliary aids and services; or (4) learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications.

    The amendments also reject Sutton's holding that for an employee to establish he was "regarded as" disabled, the employee had to prove that the employer regarded him as having an impairment that would qualify as an actual disability. Prior to the passage of the ADAAA, if the employer regarded an employee as having an impairment, but did not believe that the impairment substantially limited any of the employee's major life activities, the employee's claim failed. Under the amendments, an individual can meet the requirement of "being regarded as having an impairment" whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity, as long as the perceived impairment is not "transitory and minor." As a result, if an employer terminates an employee because of any perceived impairment, even if the impairment does not meet the definition of an actual disability, the employer may have violated the ADA. Given this more lenient standard, employers can expect an increase in "regarded as" disability litigation.

    Both Williams and Sutton provided the foundation for the dismissal of many disability discrimination and failure-to-accommodate cases. Given their rejection and the ADAAA's explicit language that "the question of whether an individual's impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis," courts will likely be hesitant to dismiss cases on the basis of a finding of no disability. Employers should be prepared to strengthen their other defenses by having clear procedures for employees to request accommodations, training supervisors to recognize when an employee may have a disability, and revising job descriptions to clearly identify the essential functions of a job that must be performed (with or without reasonable accommodations).