What Exactly Is a “Major Life Activity”? Not Driving Apparently

April 30, 2009

As previously reported in our October 10, 2008 article, the recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were intended to broaden the meaning of the term “disability” and extend the ADA’s coverage to a larger proportion of the workforce. What is becoming clear, however, is that many of the difficult interpretive issues presented by the ADA remain, and the Amendments have left many unanswered questions – perhaps more than many observers may have believed.

Congress Defines “Major Life Activity”

While the ADA Amendments retained the Act’s core definition of “disability” (defined in part as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”), Congress for the first time defined the term “major life activity” by reference to the EEOC’s prior regulations, which had been called into question. Congress also added a new list of “major bodily functions.” However, these new definitions may not expand the scope of the definition quite as far as initially thought.

Driving is Not a “Major Life Activity”

For example, just last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (with jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) held that a public health nurse who had attendance problems due to panic attacks that made her anxious about driving had no ADA claim. See Winsley v. Cook County Dep’t of Public Health (7th Cir. April 22, 2009). The nurse, who worked in the field, was involved in an automobile accident and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her doctor restricted her driving because she “would go into a full panic attack when she got into a car.” Her employer insisted that she must be able to drive two hours per day as “required by her position.” The nurse subsequently resigned and alleged that her employer had failed to accommodate her under the ADA. The court held that the nurse could not state a claim under the ADA because driving – the alleged limitation on which she relied – was not a major life activity.

Although the court decided the case based on the law as it existed prior to the ADA Amendments, it strongly suggested that its conclusion would be the same even after the Amendments. According to the court, the major life activities identified by the EEOC (which are now part of the ADA itself) “have several things in common with each other that driving does not share with them. Most importantly, the listed activities are so important to everyday life that almost anyone would consider himself limited in a material way if he could not perform them. This is not the case with driving. In fact, many Americans choose not to drive and do not consider the quality of their lives to have been diminished by their choice.”

The court further recognized that the value one places on driving may vary significantly based on where one lives. The court observed that “Manhattanites drive only rarely, while residents of more sparsely populated areas of our country rely heavily on their automobiles for transportation.” These variations in preference and necessity cannot be what Congress meant in defining a major life activity, the court concluded. In so holding, the Seventh Circuit joined the Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut and Vermont), the Tenth Circuit (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma) and the Eleventh Circuit (Florida, Georgia and Alabama) in ruling that driving is not a major life activity.

Significance of the Court’s Decision

The significance of the court’s decision in Winsley is two-fold.

  • First, it indicates that, as before the ADA Amendments, courts will continue to carefully scrutinize and apply the ADA’s statutory definitions, including the definition of “major life activity” and the other definitions that Congress expressly intended to broaden in the ADA Amendments.
  • Second, the Winsley court’s decision underscores the importance of employers accurately and completely defining and articulating in their job descriptions the essential functions of each of their positions. The nurse in Winsley could not satisfy one of the essential functions of her job as a field nurse, with or without reasonable accommodation, because she could not drive the two hours per day “as required by her position.”

For assistance in reviewing your current ADA practices or training Human Resources and other managers on the new requirements created by the ADA Amendments, please contact any member of the McGuireWoods Labor & Employment or Employee Benefits teams.