In 2008, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, with the purpose of overturning a recent Supreme Court decision that had narrowed the definition of disability much further than Congress had intended. The act had several purposes, including reinstating a broad scope of protection to be available under the ADA; reject the Supreme Court’s rule that ameliorating or mitigating measures should be taken into account when considering whether a person was disabled; and to reject the standards set by the Supreme Court in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002) that there needing to be a strict standard for defining disability under the ADA and that substantially limits a major life activity requires that ” an individual must have an impairment that prevents of severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.”
To really strike home that fact that Congress intended the ADA to protect a broad range of individuals, Congress defined major life activities in the Act as follows:
1. Major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.
2. A major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.
Importantly, the Act clarified that only one major life activity needed to be impaired and that an impairment that is episodic or in remission would be a disability if it affected a major life activity while active. This means that people with certain diseases, like multiple sclerosis or lupus, are most likely considered disabled under the ADA. It also includes individuals with cancer that is in remission. Congress recognized the importance of protecting these individuals, as it is entirely possible that their disabilities cannot be readily physically observed, but they can still be discriminated against on the basis of their impairments.
Since the passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, the Western District of Pennsylvania has published two opinions dealing with some of these invisible conditions and whether or not they are a substantial impairment of a major life activity.
The first case involved a plaintiff with multiple sclerosis, which many consider to be highly likely to be defined as a disability under the ADA because it substantially impairs neurological function, in addition to the symptoms of the disease that the person may have that affects other major life functions. However, in this case, the court found that the plaintiff was not disabled under the ADA. In Drwal v. Borough of West View, Pennsylvania, 617 F.Supp. 2d 697 (2009), the court determined that the plaintiff was not disabled because in his ADA questionnaire submitted to the EEOC, the plaintiff stated that his MS did not affect any major life activities and did not produce any evidence of it having done so. While this was probably the right conclusion based on the evidence, attorneys representing clients who need to prove that MS is a disability may be better with at least stating that MS substantially impairs the neurological system.
The second case, Pallatto v. Westmoreland County Children’s Bureau, 2014 WL 836123 (2014), the plaintiff suffered from lupus. The defendant attempted to argue that the plaintiff had not shown that her lupus substantially affected a major life activity, but the court found that plaintiff’s testimony and FMLA application showed that the major life activities of sleeping and concentrating. Interestingly, the court noted that medical evidence was not necessary if the lay people in the jury could understand how the major life activities were impaired.
Although at the outset the case finding the multiple sclerosis was not a disability under the ADA was surprising, a review of the facts of the case support that decision. In all, it appears the Western District of Pennsylvania is following the purpose of the ADAAA.
Michael Kraemer is a partner with Kraemer, Manes & Associates, a law firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, serving all of Pennsylvania, with attorneys focusing on business law, employment law, litigation, and civil issues. For more information please visit www.lawkm.com.