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A federal judge has dismissed an ADA suit brought by a former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court deputy clerk of quarter sessions who said she was forced to resign after more than 30 years of service because the court would not accommodate her worsening carpal tunnel syndrome. In his 13-page opinion in Blackwell v. City of Philadelphia, Senior U.S. District Judge Louis C. Bechtle found that Julia Lee Blackwell had failed to make out a prima facie case under the Americans with Disabilities Act for two reasons. Bechtle first found that Blackwell failed to show that her disability had “substantially impaired” a “major life activity” since the only activity she claimed was impaired was the ability to work — she did not show that she was unable to perform a “class of jobs” or a “broad range of jobs.” And even if Blackwell could have cleared that hurdle, Bechtle found that she tripped on another prima facie prong since she could not show that she was a “qualified individual” who was “able to perform the essential functions of the job.” Senior Attorney Mary L. Schmidt of the City Solicitor’s Office argued that the most important duty of a quarter sessions clerk is writing — taking notes in longhand during court. Blackwell’s lawyer, Calvin Taylor of the Law Offices of Denise J. Smyler, argued that the court could have provided Blackwell with a reasonable accommodation by placing her on light duty and by providing her with a co-worker who could have assisted her in her writing duties. But Schmidt argued that no light-duty positions were available and that the city had temporarily provided her with an assistant but chose not to make that position permanent. Bechtle sided with the city, saying “the ADA neither requires defendants to continue such an accommodation on a permanent basis nor to create a ‘light-duty’ or new permanent position.” As a result, Bechtle said, “no reasonable jury could find that plaintiff is a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA.” Blackwell filed the suit under both the ADA and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. According to the suit, Blackwell retired from her position in June 1996 after more than 30 years of service. But she said she was forced to retire because the court refused to provide reasonable accommodations for her disability. She said she began to develop pain in her forearms and wrists in 1991 and by 1993 was diagnosed as suffering from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Schmidt defended that Blackwell was not “disabled” under the ADA’s definition and that she was not a “qualified individual” because she could not perform the essential functions of her job. She also argued that the accommodation Blackwell requested would have constituted an undue hardship for the city. Bechtle found that Blackwell did not explicitly allege which major life activity was substantially limited by her bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and that she never claimed she was substantially limited either in her ability to perform manual tasks or in her ability to care for herself. Instead, Bechtle said, Blackwell “implicitly” claimed that she was limited in her ability to work. Although the ability to work “is clearly a major life activity,” Bechtle found that for such an impairment to rise to the level of a disability, a plaintiff’s ability to work must be substantially limited by her condition. “The term ‘substantially limits’ is not defined by statute,” Bechtle wrote. “However, under the regulations implementing the ADA, an impairment is considered substantially limiting when the individual is ‘unable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform’ or when the impairment ‘significantly restricts the duration, manner or condition under which an individual can perform a particular major life activity as compared to the average person in the general population’s ability to perform that same major life activity,’” he wrote. With regard to “working,” Bechtle said, “the inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation.” Instead, he said, the term “substantially limits” means that the plaintiff “is significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities.” Blackwell failed to make that showing, he said, because she never asserted that she was significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes. “She asserts only that she was unable to perform her duties as a deputy clerk without a reasonable accommodation. Thus, the record does not support the conclusion that plaintiff is substantially limited in the major life activity of working,” Bechtle wrote. Bechtle also found that Blackwell was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because she was unable to show that she was “able to perform the essential functions of the job.” Blackwell agreed that the “most important” function of her job was writing and that “all court clerks are required to be able to write in longhand.” She testified that her job as a deputy clerk required her to “write for six hours or more per day,” file documents and carry stacks of files weighing 20 pounds or more. She also testified that, because of her hands, both she and her doctors had come to the conclusion that she “could not work.” But Bechtle rejected Blackwell’s argument that she was entitled to a reasonable accommodation in the form of an assistant or a light-duty position since the ADA does not mandate that employers create new positions to accommodate workers who cannot perform the essential functions of their jobs.

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