By: Jonathan R. Mook and Colete Fontenot
Title I – Employment Provisions
Is Plaintiff Actually Disabled Under ADA?
In order to have an actual disability cognizable under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an individual must be able to demonstrate that he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Merely having an impairment, even a permanent one, is not sufficient, as the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals explained in Lewis v. City of Union City, 934 F.3d 1169 (11th Cir. 2019). In that case, the court considered whether a police officer who had suffered a heart attack that left her with a permanent injury to her heart was disabled under the ADA. The court concluded that she was not because the only limitation resulting from the officer’s heart impairment was a periodic shortness of breath.
Broad Construction of Disability
In passing the ADA Amendments Act in 2008, Congress sought to broaden the interpretation of the definition of disability and to increase the number of individuals protected by the statute. Thus, in Morrissey v. Laurel Health Care Co., 943 F.3d 1032 (6th Cir. 2019), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employee had presented sufficient evidence to raise a fact question for the jury as to whether she was disabled under the amended ADA. The employee suffered from a number of back impairments, and after working an eight to twelve-hour shift, she had difficulty walking, standing, lifting and bending and experienced pain constantly. The employee testimony was supported by that of the employee’s daughter, who reaffirmed her mother’s limitations. The Sixth Circuit said that because the ADA Amendments Act requires that coverage under the statute is to be construed broadly, the employee had presented sufficient evidence for her case to be heard by the jury.
Regarded as Disabled
Even if an individual does not come within the definition of having an actual disability under the ADA, the person still may be protected by the statute if the employer regards the person as disabled. That was the case in Lewis v. City of Union City, 934 F.3d 1169 (11th Cir. 2019) in which the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a police officer who had suffered a heart attack had raised a jury issue as to whether her employer had regarded her as disabled by placing her on leave without pay due to concerns about her heart condition.
Qualified Individual with a Disability
Not every person who has an ADA disability is entitled to the statute’s protections. The individual must be a qualified individual with a disability, that is a person who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job. What constitutes a job’s essential functions was the subject of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Clark v. Champion Nat’l Sec., 947 F.3d 275 (5th Cir. 2020). The case involved a diabetic employee, who would fall asleep at his desk during the work day. Since the employee’s job was to perform uniformed security services, the court held that the employee was not qualified because maintaining consciousness is a basic element of any job.
It is unlawful to retaliate against a disabled employee for seeking a reasonable accommodation. That principle was reaffirmed by the Sixth Circuit in Morrissey v. Laurel Health Care Co., 943 F.3d 1032 (6th Cir. 2019), where a former employee claimed that her employer had targeted her to work a twelve-hour shift even though she had been medically restricted from doing so because the employee had requested a reasonable accommodation consistent with her medical restrictions. The circuit court said that the employee’s requests for an accommodation constituted protected activity, and the employer’s refusal to adhere to the employee’s medical restrictions was retaliatory and unlawful.
An employee need not use any magic words such as “ADA” or “reasonable accommodation” to trigger the ADA reasonable accommodation interactive process with the employer. That principle was highlighted by the Eighth Circuit in Garrison v. Dolgencorp., 939 F.3d 937 (8th Cir. 2019), where the court held that an employee had made a sufficient request for a reasonable accommodation when the employee informed her employer that she suffered from depression and anxiety and made it clear that she was seeking a leave of absence due to her medical condition.
Title III – Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities
What is a Disability Under Title III?
Learning disabilities are covered under Title III of the ADA. That is the case even though an individual diagnosed with a learning disability is able to achieve academic success. That was the situation in Ramsay v. Nat’l Bd. of Med. Examiners, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 222782 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 31, 2019)where the federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that a medical student who had been diagnosed with ADHD was disabled despite her prior academic successes and her performance on standardized tests.
Are Websites Covered by Title III?
In Thurston v. Midvale Corp., 2019 Cal. App. LEXIS 830 (Cal. App. Sept. 3, 2019), the California Court of Appeals ruled that Title III of the ADA applies to a restaurant’s website and that the restaurant was obligated to make its website compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines under both Title III of the ADA and California state law.
As an accommodation under Title III of the ADA, a public accommodation may need to alter a no dogs allowed policy to allow an individual with a disability to be accompanied by a service animal. In Matheis v. CSL Plasma, Inc., 936 F.3d 171 (3rd Cir. 2019), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that it would be for a jury to determine whether a plasma donation center was obligated to alter its no animals policy to allow a patient who suffered from anxiety to be accompanied by her service animal.
If a franchisee is sued for its failure to remove architectural barriers, can the franchisor be sued too? In most cases the answer is no because the franchisor had no specific control over the franchisee’s accessibility to the disabled. This was the outcome in Sullivan v. Doctor’s Assocs. LLC, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11562 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 17, 2020), where the federal district court for the Southern District of New York dismissed a franchisor as a defendant in a Title III lawsuit alleging that the franchisee had failed to remove architectural barriers. In doing so, the district court reasoned that the plaintiff merely alleged that the franchisor exerted “general control” over the franchisee’s restaurant, but had failed to allege any facts to show that the franchisor specifically controlled the restaurant’s accessibility.
Mr. Mook is a nationally recognized practitioner in employment law and has written two treatises : Americans with Disabilities Act: Employee Rights and Employer Obligations and Americans with Disabilities Act: Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities, both published by LexisNexis. He represents employers and businesses on matters relating to employment law, business torts and business disputes.
Mr. Mook frequently counsels employers on issues involving compliance with the ADA and accommodating disabled employees, as well as other employment related matters. Mr. Mook is a co-editor of the Mid-Atlantic Employment Law Letter and is a regular contributor to several legal publications, including Bender’s Labor & Employment Bulletin. He is included in Best Lawyers in America (2019 ed.) for employment law.
Mr. Mook is a member of the Virginia and District of Columbia Bars, and is a member of the Labor & Employment Law Section of the District of Columbia Bar and has been a member of the Alexandria Commission on Persons with Disabilities. He earned his Juris Doctor from Yale Law School.