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ADA Amendments Expand Definition of “Disabled”

By Teresa Rider Bult, Litigation News Associate Editor – January 14, 2009

Dramatically changing the legal landscape for disability claims, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 [PDF], effective January 1, 2009, redefines “disability” to broaden who will be protected by disability law.

The initial Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, protects “qualified individuals with disabilities” from discrimination. Whether individuals are “disabled” under the act depends on whether they are “substantially limited in a major life activity.” Over the years, courts restrictively interpreted the ADA so that the definition of “disability” and “substantially limited” narrowed significantly.

According to an ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law [PDF] 2006 survey, employers won 97.2 percent of the cases brought under the ADA. Along with several lower court decisions, two U.S. Supreme Court cases advanced this restrictive interpretation.

In Sutton v. United Air Lines, the Court found that persons are not “disabled” if mitigating measures benefit them to such an extent that they are no longer “substantially limited” in a major life activity. Similarly, in Toyota Manufacturing Co. of Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, the Court restrictively viewed what constitutes a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.

Critics questioned whether these decisions disregarded the ADA’s original intent, leading Congress to make these amendments. In a press release issued shortly after passage of the new bill, U.S. Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the lead Democratic sponsor of the original ADA and cosponsor of the new legislation, described the Supreme Court decisions and their progeny as “narrow” and “mistaken rulings,” which “chipped away at our original intent, bit by bit.”

Final amendments change the ADA in four basic ways:

  • increasing the “major life activities” to be considered in determining disability;
  • overruling Sutton so that mitigating measures cannot be considered in determining whether individuals are disabled;
  • overruling Toyota Manufacturing and instructing the EEOC to broadly define the term “substantially limits”; and
  • expanding “regarded as disabled” claims so that plaintiffs must only prove the employer regarded them as having a physical or mental impairment (rather than requiring proof that the employer perceived them to be limited in a major life activity).

This amendment “restores the original promise and protections of the ADA,” says Senator Tom Harkin, lead sponsor of the bill, in a posted statement. “[B]y passing this bill, we have brought millions of our fellow-citizens, who were previously shut out, back where they belong: under the ADA’s protection,” he says.

Conversely, employers argue the reason courts had interpreted the ADA so narrowly was because, for once, Congress had “gotten it right.” “The ADA was clear-cut and definitive, and rightly limited the statute to those who were truly disabled,” says Ann Marie Painter, Dallas, cochair of the Section of Litigation’s Employment and Labor Law Committee. “Simply because a statute is doing what it is supposed to do and curtails frivolous litigation is no reason to amend a statute,” she says.

Employers argue that the amended law provides no standard for what will be considered a disability. The amendments will make it much harder for employers “to take the position that any given individual is not ‘disabled’ within the meaning of the act, which will mean more reasonable accommodation requests, as well as more discrimination charges and lawsuits” says Painter.

Because courts will have to interpret discrimination standards rather than “disability” definitions, there will be fewer cases dismissed on summary judgment, and more cases going to trial, Painter predicts.

The new law is not all bleak for employers. It eliminates the possibility of reverse disability discrimination claims, and specifically states that reasonable accommodations do not have to be made for individuals “regarded as” having disabilities. It also leaves intact some of the other employer-friendly provisions of the act.

Keywords: ADA, EEOC, disability law, discrimination, Sutton v. United Air Lines, Toyota Mfg. Co. of Ky., Inc. v. Williams

  • May 5, 2009 – I have a documented mathematics disability (discalcula) that is very significant and limits my ability to comprehend the financial information that is being presented to me by my attorney. I have already signed a document under duress that has not benefited me. I asked my attorney to file a motion that would allow me to bring someone with me to our meetings and to court but was consistently ignored. Is there a remedy for this in the state of Oregon. Any help that you can provide is appreciated. Thank you.
  • May 25, 2009 – toyota is a disability discriminator .I was forced from my job over a 4%disability I recived on the job. I have contacted the eeoc and the Govonor of kentucky they will do nothing. The new adaaa means nothing to injured outplaced workers.


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