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The ADA Amendments Act Expands Coverage of Disabled Employees

November 6, 2008
by: Tanya A. Salgado, Esq.

On September 25, 2008, President Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which significantly expands the definition of “disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and overturns certain Supreme Court decisions which had limited the coverage of the ADA to those whose impairments significantly restricted their major life activities.  In the ADAAA, Congress enunciated its intent that the law provide “broad coverage” to individuals with disabilities, and stated that the courts have incorrectly interpreted the term “substantially limits” to require a greater degree of limitation than it intended.  The law will take effect January 1, 2009.

After the ADA passed in 1990, much of the litigation that ensued addressed the issue of whether an individual was “disabled,” and thus covered by the law.  The ADA differs from other anti-discrimination laws in that the issue of whether an individual is a member of the protected category is often disputed on summary judgment.   Under Title VII, for example, whether an individual qualifies as a member of a protected class because of her sex or race is not an issue for dispute on summary judgment.  In sharp contrast, the issue of whether an individual qualifies as “disabled” under the ADA is often a hotly contested issue in a dispositive motion.   The courts have refined the definition of “disabled” over the years, thus limiting coverage under the ADA to those who have significant restrictions.

Congress disagreed with the direction taken by the Supreme Court.  The ADAAA amends the definition of disabled in several ways.  The new law expands “major life activities” to include the operation of a major bodily function, including “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.”  Under the ADAAA, an impairment that is episodic or in remission is considered a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.   Also, the definition of “regarded as” disabled is expanded under the ADAAA to include an individual who is subject to discrimination due to a perceived physical or mental impairment;  whether the impairment limits is perceived to limit a major life activity.     

In expanding the definition of “disabled,” Congress specifically rejected certain Supreme Court decisions that curtailed the definition.  The two Supreme Court cases rejected by Congress are summarized as follows:

Sutton v. United Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999), held that whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is to be determined with reference to mitigating measures, such as hearing aids, or mobility devices.  Thus, for example, under the Supreme Court’s holding, an individual whose condition was improved by medication would not be considered disabled.  The ADAAA specifically rejects this holding, and provides that the determination of disability must be made without regard to mitigating measures.  However, the law does provide an exception for “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses,” which must be taken into account in determining whether an impairment is substantially limiting.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 284 (2002) held that the terms “substantially” and “major” in the definition of disability must be interpreted strictly.  Congress rejected this strict reading, and instructs that the question of whether an individual’s impairment is a disability under the ADA “should not demand extensive analysis.”  In this regard, the ADAAA provides that the definition of disability “shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals…”

Congress has delegated the task of issuing regulations implementing the new definitions of disability to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The practical effects of the amendments remain to be seen.  Even prior to the ADAAA, many employers did not split hairs over the issue of whether an employee who requested an accommodation fit the definition of disabled, provided that the impairment at issue was not a short term injury.    Given the enunciated purposes of Congress in expanding the definition, such an approach no longer will be cautious, but necessary.  

Moreover, employers will need to revise their policies and procedures regarding the ADA and the accommodation process.  For example, those employers who include the definition of “disabled” in their employee manuals will need to revise their manuals to reflect the updated definition.  Also, medical certification forms, and ADA accommodation forms will need to be reviewed to ensure compliance with the amendments.  Given the likely potential for an uptick in ADA claims and lawsuits, employers would be wise to update management staff on disability issues, including training as appropriate. 

This correspondence should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult a lawyer concerning your own situation and legal questions.
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