How broad is the Americans with Disabilities Act‘s definition of “disability”?
It’s so broad, concluded the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in this recent decision, that an employee can show that he is disabled based on his say-so.
The plaintiff was the Chief Electrical Inspector of a municipality. In October 2014, the plaintiff suffered a heart attack about five months into the probationary period. He was hospitalized for four days and was on leave for two weeks following his discharge. Two days into his recovery, the defendant no longer listed the plaintiff’s name on the website under the title of Chief Electrical Inspector.
The plaintiff filed an ADA lawsuit. The defendant claimed that he had failed to establish that he had a “disability” under the ADA.
A “disability” under the ADA is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.”
An impairment includes “any physiological disorder or condition . . . affecting one or more body systems” and rises to the level of a disability “if it substantially limits the ability of an individual to perform a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.” This comparison “usually will not require scientific, medical, or statistical analysis.” Indeed, courts are supposed to construe the ADA definition of “disability” broadly.
Proving a disability doesn’t take much.
Undoubtedly, heart disease is a physical impairment under the ADA. But, a plaintiff still must establish that heart disease substantially limits one or more major life activities. The plaintiff sought to introduce sworn statements from doctors to connect these dots. However, the court brushed them aside because they were too conclusory.
One doctor merely stated the plaintiff “would have issues” with several major life activities but stopped short of asserting that his heart attack caused ‘substantial limitations’ to those activities. The other doctor said the plaintiff would have “substantial limitations” but failed to explain how or the degree to which he was substantially limited in those activities.
But the plaintiff’s testimony was not so conclusory.
[The plaintiff] testified, and the City acknowledged, that [the plaintiff] was diagnosed with heart disease at the emergency room following his heart attack. Heart disease such as [the plaintiff’s] satisfies the low threshold of impairment…[He] also testified about how his heart disease and corresponding heart attack limited his daily activities. [The plaintiff] testified that his ability to lift things—a “major life activity,” as defined by the ADA—was apparently so limited that he could not lift “anything” and that he could not move things like pieces of drywall. Among other limitations, he testified that he could only “go like 15 minute spurts” before having to stop to catch his breath.
Consequently, the plaintiff specifically alleged enough specific information that a jury could reasonably find that his heart disease has substantially limited the major life activities of at least lifting and walking.
And his say-so was enough to establish that he had a disability. Indeed, the ADA regulations do not require medical evidence to establish disability. And viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that a jury could conclude that the plaintiff was disabled.
Pre-litigation, an employer does not have to take employees at their word that they are disabled. Indeed, an employer can (and should) request narrowly-tailored medical information to validate an employee’s disability claim. Just remember that disability is a low bar. The focus after that should be on a good faith interactive dialogue to determine whether the employer can provide a reasonable accommodation to allow the employee to perform the job’s essential functions without undue hardship.