Court Says Medical Condition and Disability May Be Two Different Things

  • May 22, 2017
  • ADA
  • Dennis J. Merley

While the 2008 amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) made it much easier for employees to claim disabled status, at least one court has declared that employers can still challenge that determination successfully under the right circumstances.

Employees seeking protection under the ADA must prove, of course, that they have a disability, which means that they have a medical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The 2008 amendments to the law expanded the list of major life activities to include cognitive skills (e.g. thinking, concentrating, learning) as well as major bodily functions (such as brain, respiratory, circulatory) such that virtually every medical condition likely would impact on a major life activity.

Nevertheless, in a recent federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, the court sided with the employer who accepted the diagnosis of depression but challenged whether the impact of the condition impaired any of the employee’s major life activities.

No Question About the Diagnosis

Long-time employee Steven Russell was transferred to a new position but struggled in the job due to the increased amount of math skills that were required. As the stress from the job began to build, Russell suffered from what he deemed a nervous breakdown, causing him to take a leave of absence and begin treating with a psychiatrist.

Russell’s psychiatrist diagnosed him with Major Depressive Disorder and Panic Disorder. He wrote the company to state that work-related stress “played a role” in Russell’s disability, with much of the stress relating to his difficulty with the more complex math skills that the new position required.  The psychiatrist did not identify any particular restrictions imposed upon Russell, however, and recommended only that Russell return to work in a different job.

The company’s medical director sought clarification relating to the specific nature of Russell’s impairment and about any activities that might be impacted. After speaking with Russell’s psychiatrist, the medical director concluded that Russell’s inability to handle the math involved with his job was not caused by any particular mental or physical impairment.  He just was not good enough at math.  As a result, Russell had no medical restrictions preventing him from performing his assigned job duties and no need for accommodation so he was told he should return to work.

Russell resisted because he did not want to return to a job that stressed him out so much.  The company gave him several months to secure another position, but when he was unsuccessful in doing so, he was terminated.  Russell then sued for disability discrimination claiming that he was disabled and could have been accommodated by being placed into a different job.

Big Question About the Disability

Russell asserted that he met the definition of “disabled” under the ADA because his medical condition limited him in the activities of sleeping, breathing, concentrating and working.  The employer did not disagree that he was limited but argued that the test is whether he was “substantially” limited in those activities.  Since nothing in the doctor’s letters to the company or in his conversations with the medical director indicated substantial limitations, the company urged that Russell simply was not covered by the law.

The lower court agreed with the company and tossed the case on an early dismissal motion. Russell appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals but to no avail. The Appeals Court first noted that Russell’s only proof of substantial impairment in any major life activities was his own sworn statement to that effect.  They correctly observed that a litigant’s statement is merely a declaration, but it is not proof.  Instead, Russell needed some form of medical testimony explaining how his medical condition created substantial limitations.

Russell then pointed to notes from his doctors verifying that he had difficulty sleeping.  Again, the court considered Russell’s “proof” inadequate since those notes merely attested to the fact that certain medications he had been taking caused sleeplessness so he was told to stop taking those medications. The Appeals Court concluded that this did not prove that the actual medical condition impacted his ability to sleep.

In the absence of any real evidence verifying a major life activity was substantially disrupted by his medical condition, Russell could not prove that he was disabled under the ADSA and the Tenth Circuit therefore affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the claim.

Bottom Line

This case is the first glimmer that the question of whether an employee is disabled under the ADA is not a slam dunk just because the employee suffers from a medical condition.  There still needs to be proof that the condition substantially impairs a major life activity.

Given the lengthy list of what constitutes a major life activity under the ADA, the courts likely will continue routinely finding that employees with legitimate medical diagnoses are in fact disabled under the law.  The real battles will therefore still be fought over whether and to what extent reasonable accommodation can be provided.

Still, this case offers a bit of a road map for employers to argue the inapplicability of the ADA if the facts line up just right.