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The ADA Amendments Act: How Courts Are Interpreting the Amended Law

by The Human Equation, Inc. on 9/19/2010
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The purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is to generate and protect employment opportunities for individuals living with a disability. However, the manner in which courts have interpreted and applied the ADA since its enactment in 1990 has limited the law’s effectiveness. As a result, ADA lawsuits typically rank among the causes of action most likely to fail.

This fact did not go unnoticed by Congress, which noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has “narrowed the broad scope of protection intended to be afforded by the ADA, thus eliminating protection for many individuals whom Congress intended to protect.” Seeking to reinstate the original intent of the ADA, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) in 2008, which became effective on January 1, 2009.

There is little doubt that the ADAAA broadened the scope of protection for qualified individuals with a disability. However, as is often the case with new laws, the precise impact of the ADAAA could not be determined until enough time has passed so that the new provisions can be tested in court. Since the ADAAA has generally been interpreted as not having retroactive applicability, lawsuits involving the amended law are just now beginning to work their way through the courts.

One such case pending in the Northern District of Indiana considered whether Stage III Renal Cancer qualifies as a disability under the ADA even though the employee was in remission at the time of the alleged discrimination. The employer asked the court to summarily rule in its favor because the employee’s condition did not satisfy the ADA’s definition of disability since the cancer was in remission. As a result, the employer argued, the employee was not protected by the ADA.

In denying the employer’s argument, the court relied on two separate provisions of the ADAAA: one specific and one general.

The first provision relied upon by the court specifically provides that “an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.” In other words, under the ADAAA, because the employee had cancer in remission (and that cancer would have substantially limited a major life activity when it was active), the employee does not need to show that he was substantially limited in a major life activity at the actual time of the alleged adverse employment action. Since the employer could not reasonably dispute that Stage III Renal Cancer, when active, constitutes a disability, the court rejected the employer’s argument.

The second provision involves a general statement of intent found within the ADAAA. It states that “it is the intent of Congress that the primary object of attention in cases brought under the ADA should be whether entities covered under the ADA have complied with their obligations.” Consequently, the question of whether an individual’s impairment constitutes a disability under the ADA “should not demand extensive analysis.” The court relied on this provision to hold, in essence, that the rule governing impairments in remission was sufficient to deny the employer’s argument without requiring any further consideration. Accordingly, the court denied the employer’s motion and held that the case would proceed to trial.

From a practical standpoint, it is this second, general statement of intent which is most likely to alter the landscape of ADA litigation in the future. By limiting the extent of analysis into an individual’s status as disabled, employers may find that their ability to defend ADA lawsuits has been limited by the ADAAA. This is significant because employers have historically been very successful in arguing that a plaintiff is not disabled under the ADA and is therefore ineligible for its protection. However, since the phrase “extensive analysis” is inherently vague, it is possible that some courts may allow employers leeway in challenging an employee’s status as disabled. Nevertheless, it is possible that more ADA cases will end up going to trial rather than being resolved summarily without a trial, which is what happened in this case.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty currently surrounding the ADAAA has left many employers operating without a net. Since the new provisions may ultimately operate to increase the likelihood of ADA violations and decrease the likelihood of quickly resolving such cases, employers must proceed cautiously when dealing with disability-related employment matters. Otherwise, your organization may be involved in the next case that employers use as a tool to learn what the ADAAA requires.

To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act, including the ADAAA’s requirements, click here.

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Categories: 2010

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