Bustos Law Firm

Refining the Focus of Disability Discrimination

In Employment, Federal Law, Litigation on January 3, 2012 at 5:43 PM

Though persons with disabilities have constituted a protected class since the effective date of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), that class has been relatively small, due to the limitations the U.S. Supreme Court placed on the definition of “disability” under the act. In Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999), the Court ruled that an impairment’s limitation on a life activity must be considered in light of any mitigation to that impairment. As a result, persons whom United Airlines would not hire as pilots because of impaired but corrected vision could not successfully sue under the ADA. In Toyota v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), the Court stated that the standard in determining whether a condition qualified as a disability was “demanding.”

With the passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), these definitional limitations have been removed, and covered employers (those engaged in interstate commerce and having 15 or more workers), public entities, and places of public accommodation need to be careful now more than ever not to discriminate based on a person’s disability. Though the ADAAA does not change the words for the definition of disability—a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity—it adds numerous measures broadening that definition (for the complete text of the Act, see http://www.law.georgetown.edu/archiveada/documents/S3406FinalEngrossed Version.pdf):

  • The ADAAA explicitly overturns the standards enunciated in Sutton and Toyota, stating, “The purposes of this Act are to reject” them.
  • The Act broadens the protected class “to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this Act.”
  • It provides a non-exhaustive list of “major life activities,” including caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.
  • As part of “major life activities,” it also includes “the operation of a major bodily function,” which includes functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

These measures and others found in the ADAAA emphatically broaden the sweep of potential liability for discriminating against persons with disabilities by shifting the focus of the inquiry from whether an individual is disabled to whether discrimination occurred. As the case law begins to develop, employers and other covered entities should be aware that conditions held by federal courts not to constitute a disability under the ADA (such as epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer, vision in only one eye, and asthma) will (along with all other physical impairments) get a very strong second look by the same courts under the ADAAA. As a result, employers will need to defend disability discrimination lawsuits more on the merits, and cannot rely on early dismissal of such lawsuits in the future. Of course, such lawsuits can still be defeated by disproving discrimination.

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