Does an employee have an ADA ‘disability’ if it substantially limits the major life activity of ‘working’?

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Ever since the amendments to the Americans with Disability Act took effect in 2009, management-side employment lawyers have preached to clients that they should focus more on accommodating a disability rather than whether an employee has a disability in the first place.

But, what if you have an employee who seeks an accommodation — time off — for a condition that she claims impacts her ability to work?

Hmmm…

This is the elevator-speech set of facts from this Sixth Circuit opinion from last month. For what it’s worth, the employer did provide the employee with FMLA and other leave. But, finally, the company drew the line when the employee insisted on more leave and a new supervisor to accommodate her PTSD which supposedly limited only her ability to perform the major life activity of “work.”

But isn’t working a major life activity under the ADAAA? Well, it is. But here’s the catch. Cue the Sixth Circuit:

[T]he EEOC’s interpretive guide explains that an individual who asserts that she is disabled because she is unable to perform the major life activity of “working” must still show that “the impairment substantially limits . . . her ability to perform a class of jobs or broad range of jobs in various classes.” The EEOC further states that “[d]emonstrating a substantial limitation in performing the unique aspects of a single specific job is not sufficient to establish that a person is substantially limited in the major life activity of working.” Thus, … a plaintiff who asserts that her impairment substantially limits the major life activity of “working” is still required to show that her impairment limits her ability to “perform a class of jobs or broad range of jobs.”

In this particular case, the plaintiff only claimed that her PTSD impacted her ability to perform a single job. Therefore, she didn’t have a ‘disability’ under the ADA. And without a disability, she has no viable claim under the ADA.

Does this mean that employment lawyers will be giving new advice to clients when dealing with workplace accommodations? Probably not. Sure, an employer does not have to take the employee’s word on whether he or she has a ‘disability’. Instead, the employer can insist on the employee furnishing supporting medical records/information.

However, nothing about this case or this post raises the otherwise low bar for establishing a disability under the ADA. Therefore, when confronted with an employee’s request for accommodation, employers should continue to focus on determining whether they can provide a reasonable accommodation that will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job without creating undue hardship for the business.

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”