As the ADAAA does not apply retroactively, and will therefore only apply to denials of reasonable accommodation where a request was made (or an earlier request was renewed) or to other alleged discriminatory acts that occurred on or after January 1, 2009. Situations in which an employer, union, or employment agency allegedly failed to hire, terminated, or denied a reasonable accommodation to someone with a disability on or before December 31, 2008 the original ADA definition of disability would be applied even if the person did not file with the EEOC until after January 1, 2009.
President George W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which went into effect January 1, 2009. The changes in the definition of disability in the ADAAA apply to all titles of the ADA, including Title I (employment practices of private employers with 15 or more employees, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor unions, agents of the employer and joint management labor committees); Title II (programs and activities of state and local government entities); and Title III (private entities that are considered places of public accommodation). It also directed the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to amend its ADA regulations to reflect the changes made by the ADAAA. The final regulations were published in the Federal Register on March 25, 2011
The ADAAA made a number of significant changes to the definition of “disability.” In enacting the ADAAA, Congress made it easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA to establish that he or she has a disability within the meaning of the statute. Congress overturned several Supreme Court decisions that Congress believed had interpreted the definition of “disability” too narrowly, resulting in a denial of protection for many individuals with impairments such as cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy. The ADAAA states that the definition of disability should be interpreted in favor of broad coverage of individuals. As a result, many more medical conditions will qualify as either an actual disability or a perceived disability for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
ADAAA: Expanding Employee Protections and Employer Obligations
Expansion of Definition of Actual Disability
The ADAAA does not change the ADA’s three prong definition of disability: that a “disability” is a (1) “physical or mental impairment” that “substantially limits” the “major life activities” of the individual; (2) a record of an impairment; or (3) being “regarded as” having an impairment. However, the regulations implement the significant changes that Congress made regarding how those terms should be interpreted.
Prong 1: “Physical or Mental Impairment”
The definition of “impairment” in the new regulations is almost identical to the definition in EEOC’s original ADA regulations, except that the immune and circulatory systems have been added to the list of body systems that may be affected by an impairment, because these systems are specifically mentioned in the ADAAA’s examples of major bodily functions.
The regulations define “physical or mental impairment” as any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin and endocrine. They also cover any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disability (formerly termed mental retardation), organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.
Prong 1: “Substantially Limits”: Congress’s mandate that the definition of disability be construed broadly.
The ADAAA states that the primary focus in ADA cases should be on whether covered employers have complied with their obligations and that the determination of whether an individual’s impairment is a disability under the ADA “should not demand extensive analysis.”
Among other things, the ADAAA references the intent of Congress to reject recent Supreme Court decisions holding that an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity only if an individual is “prevented or severely restricted in an activity that is of central importance to most people’s daily lives.” The ADAAA essentially tells the EEOC, which had defined “substantially limited” in its regulations to mean “significantly restricted,” to devise a more liberal definition.
The ADAAA also rejects another Supreme Court holding that mitigating measures an individual uses to counteract the effects of an impairment (for example, medication) must be taken into account in determining whether an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity. Under the ADAAA, the only mitigating measures that may be taken into account in assessing whether an individual has a disability are ordinary eyeglasses and contact lenses. The ADAAA further provides that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity.
The regulations implement Congress’s intent to set forth predictable, consistent, and workable standards by adopting “rules of construction” to use when determining if an individual is substantially limited in performing a major life activity. These rules of construction are derived directly from the statute and legislative history and include the following:
The term “substantially limits” requires a lower degree of functional limitation than the standard previously applied by the courts. An impairment does not need to prevent or severely or significantly restrict a major life activity to be considered “substantially limiting.” Nonetheless, not every impairment will constitute a disability.
The term “substantially limits” is to be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA.
The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity requires an individualized assessment, as was true prior to the ADAAA.
With one exception (“ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses”), the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity shall be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures, such as medication or hearing aids.
An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.
In keeping with Congress’s direction that the primary focus of the ADA is on whether discrimination occurred, the determination of disability should not require extensive analysis.
Prong 1: “Major Life Activities”
Prior to the ADAAA, it was up to the courts to determine whether activities qualified as “major life activities,” using the regulations promulgated by the EEOC as guidance. The ADAAA removes much of the courts’ and the EEOC’s discretion by specifically designating a non-exhaustive list of examples of major life activities: caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, blinking, communicating and working.
The ADAAA also designates the operation of “a major bodily function” as per se a major life activity and provides as examples: functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, and digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine and reproductive functions. As a result of the ADAAA’s recognition of major bodily functions as major life activities, it will be easier to find that individuals with certain types of impairments have a disability.
Prong 2: “Record of an Impairment”
An individual who does not currently have a substantially limiting impairment but who had one in the past meets this definition of “disability.” An individual also can meet the “record of” definition of disability if she was once misclassified as having a substantially limiting impairment (e.g., someone erroneously deemed to have had a learning disability but who did not).
All of the changes to the first definition of disability discussed in the questions above – including the expanded list of major life activities, the lower threshold for finding a substantial limitation, the clarification that episodic impairments or those in remission may be disabilities, and the requirement to disregard the positive effects of mitigating measures – will apply to evaluating whether an individual meets the “record of” definition of disability.
Prong 3: Expansion of Definition of “Regarded As” Disability
Under the third prong of the definition of disability, individuals are protected from discrimination based on “being regarded as having such an impairment.” Since the only subject in the definition that the word “such” can be read to refer to is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more … major life activities of such individual,” courts have generally construed this provision as protecting only individuals whose employers perceive them as having an impairment that is an actual ADA disability, i.e., one that substantially limits an employee in the performance of one or more major life activities. The ADAAA provides that a person will be “regarded as” disabled if the person establishes that he was subjected to discrimination because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment – regardless of whether the actual or perceived impairment in fact limits a major life activity. The only qualification on this broadened definition of “regarded as” disability is that impairments that are both “transitory (meaning an actual or expected duration of six months or less) and minor” will not qualify for “regarded as” protection. Not surprisingly, the ADAAA makes clear that employers need not provide a reasonable accommodation to individuals who do not actually have a disability, but are “regarded as” having one.
The ADAAA specifically states that those covered under only the third prong (“regarded as”) are not entitled to reasonable accommodation. Thus, an individual must be covered under the first prong (“actual disability”) or second prong (“record of disability”) in order to qualify for a reasonable accommodation. The regulations clarify that it is generally not necessary to proceed under the first or second prong if an individual is not challenging an employer’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.
The ADAAA bars the use of qualification standards, employment tests, and other selection criteria based on an individual’s uncorrected vision unless the standard, test or other selection criteria is shown to be job-related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity. The ADAAA also makes clear that no claim can be brought for reverse discrimination under the ADA; i.e., an individual who does not have an ADA disability cannot state a claim based on preferential treatment afforded an individual who does have an ADA disability.
Conclusion: Impact of the ADAAA
So what does this mean for employers? As the ADA prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s disability, now more employees may qualify as disabled under the ADA and may request reasonable accommodations to perform their jobs. Particularly with respect to the amendments related to mitigating measures and episodic impairments, requests may come from employees who were never previously known to have impairments. Since these issues are likely to arise in your municipality, now is a good time to become familiar with the requirements of the ADA, including the interactive process and reasonable accommodations.
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