Last Friday, the EEOC published its long-awaited (and hotly debated) regulations implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) [pdf]. The blawgosphere has lit up with extensive summaries. Instead of doing the same, I thought I’d share with my readers what strikes me as the five most interesting things I’ve found in these regulations.
1. Broad Coverage. In case there is any doubt in anyone’s mind, the purpose of the ADAAA is to make it easier for employees seeking the ADA’s protection to establish a disability within its meaning. In other words, employers, the EEOC, and courts are supposed to interpret the definition of disability “broadly.” As a result, ADA cases will no longer focus whether an employee qualifies as disabled, but instead on the merits of the challenged employment decision. Notwithstanding the breadth of these amendments, groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and SHRM (registration required) are applauding the EEOC for the pro-business changes incorporated into the regulations.
2. Individualized Assessments for Medical Conditions. The regulations abolish any notion that certain medical conditions will always qualify as disabilities. Instead, the regulations call for an “individualized assessment” of whether a certain condition “substantially limits a major life activity.” For many conditions, this assessment should be simple and straightforward. For example, deafness, blindness, intellectual disability, partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia will usually, but not automatically, qualify as disabilities.
3. Handling of Episodic Conditions and Ameliorative Effects. The current effects of a disability are not the only factors that one considers in determining whether a medical condition is substantially limiting. Impairments that are episodic or in remission—including cancer, epilepsy, hypertension, asthma, diabetes, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—qualify as disabilities if substantially limiting when active. Additionally, mitigating measures—those that eliminate or reduce the symptoms or impact of an impairment—do not factor into the “substantially limiting” calculus. These mitigating measures include medication, medical equipment and devices, prosthetic limbs, low vision devices (except ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses), hearing aids, mobility devices, oxygen therapy equipment, use of assistive technology, reasonable accommodations, learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications, psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, and physical therapy.
4. Most Adverse Action Claims Going Forward Will Be “Regarded As” Claims. The ADAAA does not change the statute’s three-pronged approach to defining disability:
- a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (an “actual disability”)
- a record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity (a “record of disability”)
- when a covered entity takes an action prohibited by the ADA because of an actual or perceived impairment that is not both transitory and minor (“regarded as” disabled).
What has changed, however, is the agency’s approach to how these definitions factor into claims brought by employees. There is no rule that an employee must use a particular prong when challenging an employer’s actions. However, because an employer is not required to provide a reasonable accommodation for a “regarded as” disability, an employee claiming a denial of a reasonable accommodation must bring the claim as an “actual disability” claim or a “record of” claim. While an employee can bring an adverse action claim under any of the three definition, the EEOC believes that they should be brought under the “regarded as” prong because of its ease of coverage.
5. Coverage for Temporary or Short-Lived Impairments. The ADAAA substantially expanded the circumstances in which employers may be liable under the “regarded as” prong by removing the requirement that an employee prove that the perceived impairment substantially limits a major life activity. The only exception to the “regarded as” prong is for “transitory and minor” impairments. “Transitory and minor” is an affirmative defense that employers must prove. It is only a defense, however, to claims brought under the “regarded as” prong. It is not a defense to actual disabilities or a record of disability.