The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), which went into effect last year, was a legislative response to U.S. Supreme Court precedent. The ADAAA generally makes it easier for some employees to establish themselves as “disabled” and to require accommodations from their employers. Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) fleshed out the import of the ADAAA when it issued new regulations and an interpretive guidance.
The following are some of the important ADA issues addressed by the ADAAA and its implementing regulations.
“Regarded As” Claims
There remain three ways to be “disabled” for ADA purposes: by having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; by having a record of such an impairment; or by being regarded as having such an impairment. The bar has been lowered for making out a “regarded as” claim.
It used to be that a plaintiff had to establish that because of a mistaken belief about the individual’s impairment, the employer regarded him or her as either unable to perform or severely restricted in performing some major life activity. Now, under the more relaxed standard, the plaintiff need only show that the employer believed that the individual could not perform the particular job at issue.
Major Life Activities
The thrust of the new rules is that the determination as to disability should be tilted in favor of broad ADA coverage and should not require extensive analysis. An individual’s ability to perform a major life activity will be compared to most people in the general population, often with more reliance on common sense than on scientific or medical evidence. It is enough for disability status if only one major life activity is substantially limited.
The original ADA and its regulations mention a number of major life activities, substantial limitations of which can lead to a finding that a person is disabled. These include such things as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, speaking, and walking, among other things.
Curiously enough, considering that the ADA is meant to prohibit a type of employment discrimination, before the latest legislation and regulations came into effect, the federal appellate courts were divided over whether “working” was a major life activity. Now that question has been answered in the affirmative.
The new measures add reaching, sitting, and interacting with others to the ADA’s list of specific major life activities. Cardiovascular and lymphatic systems, and functions of the skin and special sense organs, have been added to the list of the major bodily functions that comprise a sub‑category of major life activities.
Previously, a person was not impaired for ADA purposes if his or her impairment could be mitigated, such as by medication or medical devices. Under the new regulations, such positive effects of mitigating measures are ignored in determining whether an impairment is substantially limiting.
The ranks of potential plaintiffs under the ADA will also increase because of the rule applicable to those with an impairment that is episodic or even in remission, such as epilepsy, hypertension, multiple sclerosis, asthma, diabetes, and some mental illnesses. In such cases, an individual is disabled if, when the condition is active, the individual is substantially limited in a major life activity.
Per Se Disabilities
To head off a prolonged argument over whether an individual is disabled in the first place, and proceed to the consideration of possible accommodations by an employer, the new regulations effectively declare certain conditions to be per se disabilities. Examples include blindness, deafness, intellectual disabilities, missing limbs, and any mobility impairments requiring a wheelchair.
Up until now, many ADA plaintiffs lost on the threshold issue of whether they were even “disabled” within the meaning of the ADA, rendering other issues moot. In the future, many more such plaintiffs will successfully cross the first hurdle. This will lead to more consideration and the fleshing out of such thorny ADA issues as whether the employer acted with a discriminatory motive, whether the employer met its duty to accommodate the disabled person, and whether different treatment of the disabled person could be justified by a significant risk of substantial harm to the person or to others in the workplace.