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Blindness in one eye does not qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act unless the plaintiff can also show that the loss of vision has affected his ability to engage in daily activities, a federal judge has ruled. In his 18-page opinion in Congleton v. Weil-McLain, U.S. District Judge Bruce W. Kauffman found that one-eye blindness, or monocular vision, results in a lack of depth perception and a limited field of vision, but that those who suffer from it are often able to compensate through adjustments in the brain and by turning their heads. As a result, Kauffman found that monocular vision “is not a per se disability,” and that plaintiffs therefore have the burden to prove that the evidence of their own experience shows that the condition has substantially limited a “major life activity.” In Wesley Congleton’s case, Kauffman said, the evidence fell short. Kauffman found that Congleton lacks depth perception, has a limited field of vision, has no peripheral vision on his left side and cannot see objects on his left side clearly. But Kauffman found that Congleton “must have learned to compensate for these impairments because, at the time he returned to work in September 1999, he could drive a car, watch television, read, and perform his normal daily activities.” In his deposition, Kauffman noted, Congleton testified that he needs no accommodation to perform the tasks required by his job. “In fact, plantiff has failed to identify any daily activity that his condition prevents or substantially limits him from doing,” Kauffman wrote. Kauffman also rejected Congleton’s claim that he was “regarded as” disabled, finding that the comments of his bosses showed only that they were concerned about his condition, and not that they considered it truly disabling. “The fact that supervisors express concern for an employee’s health does not necessarily mean that they consider a condition to be a substantial limitation to a major life activity,” Kauffman wrote. To be covered under the “regarded as” prong of the ADA, Kauffman said, “the employer must regard the employee to be suffering from an impairment within the meaning of the statutes, not just that the employer believed the employee to be somehow disabled.” Congleton couldn’t meet that test, Kauffman said, because he “fails to present any evidence that his supervisors perceived his visual impairment to substantially limit or significantly affect his ability to see. To the contrary, there is evidence that they were aware that he could drive, work full time without medical restrictions, and do all the tasks that his position as a sales representative required.” According to court papers, in 1994 Congleton began working as a sales representative for Weil-McLain, one of the country’s leading manufacturers of cast iron boilers. In May 1999, he began experiencing problems with his vision and was diagnosed with a detached retina. Forced to undergo two surgeries, he was out of work for four months. The suit says Congleton’s left-eye vision was reduced to 20/200 for the next year and a half, and currently remains impaired, with 20/80 vision. As a result of the loss of vision in the left eye, Congleton testified that he completely lacks depth perception, has a limited field of vision, often walks into objects and people, and cannot see things clearly on his left side. The suit alleged that when Congleton returned to work, he had no restrictions other than to refrain from heavy lifting, which is not ordinarily required for his position. Nonetheless, he claims that his supervisor saw him as “damaged goods” and did not talk to him, write to him, or call him about his job performance during the four months before he was terminated. At one point, Congleton claims, his supervisor told him “don’t get your other eye poked out” because if he did he would be “totally useless.” On his first performance review after returning, Congleton claims that the first item his supervisor noted was his disability leave. Just one month later, Congleton claims that he was fired and was told that company executives were “very, very concerned about [his] health,” and believed that he “would not be able to handle the job due to [his] health problems.” In addition to his disability discrimination claims, Congleton also alleged that his firing was in retaliation for his decision to take disability leave. But Kauffman concluded that the retaliation claim, too, was flawed because Congleton never engaged in any “protected activity.” Workers who are found not to be disabled may still pursue a retaliation claim, Kauffman found, because “the ADA retaliation provision protects ‘any individual’ who has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by the ADA or who has made a charge under the ADA.” But Kauffman concluded that “the fact that [Congleton] is not disabled under the ADA is nevertheless relevant because the protected activity that he alleges is the taking and requesting medical leave, which he contends are the same as seeking ‘reasonable accommodation’ for his eye condition.” For leave to be considered an accommodation, Kauffman said, “it must be taken or requested in order to make an employee able to perform his or her job.” But Congleton “merely took medical leave to undergo surgery after an eye injury and told his employer upon his return that he needed additional surgery,” Kauffman found. Kauffman found that Congleton “never informed [Weil-McLain] that the leave was necessary to accommodate his condition.” Congleton also “admits that he could perform the tasks required by his job upon his return to work and that the additional surgery was thus not necessary to make him able to work,” Kauffman noted. As a result, Kauffman concluded that “no reasonable jury could find that there was an action by plaintiff which defendant could have construed as a request for reasonable accommodation.” Since Congleton “was not engaging in an activity that is protected under the ADA,” Kauffman found that he failed to satisfy the first prong of a retaliation claim by showing he engaged in a “protected activity.”

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