ADAAA Case Highlights Broadened Definition of “Disability”

March 10, 2011

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Toyota v. Williams, employers have enjoyed a period of relative low risk in determining whether an employee is disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Using Toyota, federal courts created a body of case law that made it difficult for an employee to qualify as disabled under the ADA. Further, when an employee did satisfy the “disabled” prong of the ADA analysis, the disability was often so severe that even with a reasonable accommodation, the employee was not considered “qualified” for the position in question.

This ended in 2008, when the ADA was amended to broaden the definition of “disability” to address what some viewed as an overly restrictive view of the statute. The result is a new and growing body of federal case law that grants disability status to conditions that would not have qualified as disabilities a few years ago, thereby triggering the duty for employers to engage in the collaborative process of determining whether they can provide a reasonable accommodation.

Hoffman v. Carefirst

An example of this broadened disability definition is Hoffman v. Carefirst of Fort Wayne, Inc. d/b/a Advanced Healthcare. In Hoffman, an employee who worked as a service technician traveled by van to supply homebound patients with oxygen machines and wheelchairs, and otherwise worked from home when not seeing patients. He was diagnosed with and treated for stage III kidney cancer in 2007. In 2008, after having the cancerous kidney removed, he returned to work without medical restrictions.

In early 2009, Carefirst told the employee that he would be required to work extra hours up to 70 hours per week due to a new contract the company received. The employee asked for a reasonable accommodation of a limited work week of 8 hours per day, 5 days per week and provided a note from his doctor supporting his request. The diagnosis remained stage III kidney cancer.

Initially, the employee’s line supervisor summarily terminated him. Discussions ensued, and the company retracted the termination and offered the employee a choice between working 40 hours a week from another office (other than his home) or discharge. The employee rejected the company’s offer and his discharge stood.

The employee then sued, claiming he was improperly denied a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). The employer sought to dismiss the suit, claiming that the employee’s cancer was in remission. Thus, it asserted he did not have a condition that substantially limited a major life activity – the definition of disability set forth in the ADAAA. The U.S. District Court disagreed.

It held, “[t]his Court is bound by the clear language of the ADAAA. Because it clearly provides that ‘an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active,’ and neither side disputes that Stage III Renal Cancer, when active, constitutes a disability, this Court must find that Hoffman was ‘disabled’ under the ADAAA.”

Employer Take-Aways

The Hoffman decision is in keeping with other federal court decisions broadly construing the expanded definition of disability under the ADAAA. Employers should expect that courts to find more conditions, even episodic conditions, to be disabilities, and should take seriously their duty to engage in the collaborative process of determining whether and what reasonable accommodations may be available. Other action items include:

  • Training managers that conditions formerly thought not to be disabilities may be considered such under the ADAAA.
  • Having managers refer all requests for accommodations to a central clearing point so they can be uniformly addressed.
  • Being conscious that episodic conditions and conditions in remission or corrected with medication / medical devises may still be defined disabilities under the ADAAA.

For further information regarding compliance with the ADAAA and how best to address related requests for reasonable accommodation if and when they arise, please contact the author or any other member of the McGuireWoods Labor and Employment Team.