Reasonable Accommodation

ADAAA Obligations Further Defined in Courts

Recent court decisions are fleshing out what constitutes a protected disability under the ADAAA
By: | February 11, 2016 • 5 min read

Standing, interacting with others, and temporary vision loss due to a blood pressure spike may be considered “major life activities” and warrant accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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Federal Circuit Courts are increasingly expanding the definition of “protected disabled persons” since Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act in 2008, emphasizing that the definition of what constitutes a disability should be construed broadly to cover individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA without requiring extensive analysis.

Employers may want to rethink their decisions to reject reasonable accommodations since they are finding themselves on the losing end of cases that previously might have been considered overreaching among their employees. A sampling of recent cases reveals how court decisions are trending.

Jacobs v. North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts

Social anxiety disorder is defined as a condition that “interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational … functions, or social activities or relationships,” said the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court reversed a District Court’s ruling in the case of a deputy clerk who was terminated after she requested not to work at the court’s service counter.

The employee had argued that interacting with the public exacerbated her anxiety symptoms. The case, Jacobs v. North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, is just one example of a federal court reversing a lower court’s decision in favor of the worker.

Cannon v. Jacobs Field Services North America, Inc.

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A recent decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates that federal courts continue to struggle with the definition of disability under the ADAAA. In Cannon v. Jacobs Field Services North America, Inc., the court reversed a District Court’s ruling, concluding that the lower court had “ignored Congress’s expansion of the definition of disability when it amended the ADA in 2008.”

A mechanical engineer who could not lift his right arm above shoulder level due to unsuccessful rotator cuff surgery was offered a job with a construction company as a field engineer. At his preemployment physical, he revealed his injury to the doctor, who cleared him for the position with accommodations — no driving company vehicles, no lifting, pushing, or pulling more than 10 pounds, and no working with his hands above shoulder level.

The construction company disagreed with the accommodations and rescinded the engineer’s job offer, concluding that he would “not be able to meet the project needs and required job duties,” which included “driving, climbing, lifting, and walking.” The engineer sued, claiming discrimination and failure to accommodate. The District Court granted summary judgment to the company, finding that the engineer’s rotator cuff injury was not a disability under the ADA because his “injured shoulder did not substantially impair his daily functioning.” The 5th Circuit found this conclusion “at odds with changes brought about by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.” The court concluded that there was ample evidence that the engineer’s injury qualified as a disability, given that “lifting” is a major life activity and the engineer and his doctor both stated that he was unable to lift his arm above shoulder level and had considerable difficulty lifting, pushing, or pulling objects.

Mazzeo v. Color Resolutions International LLC

In Mazzeo v. Color Resolutions International LLC, a salesman had a herniated disk and torn ligaments in his back. The day after informing his employer that he was having back surgery, he was terminated. The salesman sued, alleging discrimination. The District Court held that he failed to show that he was disabled and granted summary judgment to his employer. On appeal, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that in light of the ADAAA the salesman submitted sufficient evidence that he was disabled.

The salesman’s doctor stated that his back problems intermittently affected his ability to walk, sit, stand, bend, sleep, and lift objects weighing more than 10 pounds and that his pain would increase with prolonged sitting and standing. The 11th Circuit explained that major life activities now include sleeping, walking, standing, lifting and bending, and since the doctor stated that the salesman was substantially and permanently limited in these areas, “given the new standards and definitions put in place by the ADAAA, that evidence was enough for [the salesman] to present a prima facie case.”

Gogos v. AMS Mechanical Systems, Inc.

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In Gogos v. AMS Mechanical Systems, Inc., a welder with vision and circulatory problems caused by high blood pressure was terminated when he left work due to a blood pressure spike that caused temporary vision loss in one eye. He sued, alleging discrimination.

The District Court dismissed the action, reasoning that his medical conditions were “transitory” and “suspect” and therefore did not qualify as disabilities under the ADA. In vacating the ruling, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the welder’s blood pressure spike and resultant vision loss were covered disabilities.

The court explained that “under the 2008 amendments, a person with an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity … is disabled even if the impairment is ‘transitory and minor.’” The court stated that the relevant inquiry was whether “despite their short duration,” the welder’s high blood pressure and vision loss substantially impaired a major life activity “when they occurred.” The welder alleged that his episode of very high blood pressure and intermittent blindness substantially impaired two major life activities: his circulatory function and eyesight. Accordingly, the 7th Circuit held that he had plausibly alleged a covered disability.

Christina Nevins, Esq., is the disability legal editor at LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

Risk Matrix: Presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]