ADA Amendments Act Provides Employees with Greater Protection

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employees who are “substantially limited” in a “major life activity” are considered disabled and entitled to reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Handicapped employees experienced a welcome change with the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which became effective on January 1, 2009.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) went into effective in 1992 and, since that time, has faced numerous criticisms. Namely, the strict standards under the ADA created scenarios in which employees were either not sufficiently disabled to state a viable claim or too disabled to be deemed qualified for the position in question.

The ADA Amendments help to minimize these concerns and, in doing so, essentially overturn certain Supreme Court precedents that made it difficult for employees to show that they suffered a substantial limitation in a major life activity. In Sutton v. U.S. Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999), for instance, the Supreme Court held that “the determination of whether an individual is disabled should be made with reference to measures that mitigate the individual’s impairment ….” The Supreme Court reiterated this principle in Murphy v. UPS, 527 U.S. 516 (1999) and Alberstons, Inc. v. Kirkinburg, 527 U.S. 555 (1999), which were both decided the same day as Sutton. Likewise, in Toyota v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), the Supreme Court stated that a substantial limitation in a major life activity must be “interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled ….”

The following is an overview of some of the key changes brought by the ADAAA:

1. Broadened Definition of Disability

Since the ADA was enacted, numerous federal courts found several severe medical conditions – including epilepsy, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, intellectual disabilities, major depression, and bipolar disorder – to not meet the ADA’s definition of “disability.” The purpose of the ADAAA makes explicit that its purpose is “to reinstate a broad scope of protection” by expanding the definition of “disability,” which immediately reverses more than one decade of conservative federal court decisions. The ADAAA also makes clear that a medical condition that is episodic or in remission meets the definition of disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.

2. Broadened Definition of Major Life Activity

The ADA was silent as to what constituted a “major life activity.” The ADAAA now provides a non-exhaustive list of examples of major life activities such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working. The ADAAA also makes clear that major life activities include major bodily functions related to the immune system, cell growth, as well as digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. As a result, serious medical conditions such as cancer (which affects normal cell growth) and diabetes (which affects the endocrine system) should clearly be considered disabilities under the ADAAA.

3. The Effect of Mitigating Measures

Contrary to the trilogy in Sutton, Murphy, and Kirkinburg, the ADAAA requires that mitigating measures be ignored in evaluating whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity. As such, a mitigating measure can longer be used against employees.

4. “Regarded As” Disabled Standard Revised

The ADA has always offered protection for those employees whom an employer wrongly “regarded” as being disabled. Federal courts, however, required ADA plaintiffs to demonstrate that the employer regarded them as being substantially limited in a major life activity in order to prevail. The ADAAA dispenses with the holding in Sutton:

Standing alone, the allegation that respondent has a vision requirement in place does not establish a claim that respondent regards petitioners as substantially limited in the major life activity of working. … When the major life activity under consideration is that of working, the statutory phrase “substantially limits” requires, at a minimum, that plaintiffs allege they are unable to work in a broad class of jobs.

Contrary to Sutton, under the ADAAA, an employee satisfies the “regarded as” prong if she demonstrates discrimination based on “an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.”

With these changes, federal law is catching up to the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act. In 2001, for instance, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts decided Dahill v. Police Department of Boston, in which the court refused to follow the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Sutton v. U.S. Air Lines and ruled that mitigating measures or corrective devices should not be considered when determining whether an employee is handicapped under M.G.L. c. 151B(1)(17).