Thursday, January 5, 2012

Disability discrimination law in Ohio is a mess


Let’s start with the obvious: it is illegal in Ohio for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of the employee’s disability. It is not always easy to figure out who this proscription covers, because Ohio’s statute (R.C. 4112) and the federal statute (the ADA) have their own respective definitions of what is a disability, which vary slightly:

     Ohio Law:

“Disability” means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including the functions of caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working; a record of a physical or mental impairment; or being regarded as having a physical or mental impairment.

     Federal Law:

The term “disability” means, with respect to an individual — (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.

Before Congress amended the ADA in 2009, there existed another key difference between its and Ohio’s respective definitions of “disability.” To be “regarded as” disabled under Ohio law, one has to be “regarded as having a physical or mental impairment.” Under the pre-ADAAA ADA, to be “regarded as” disabled, one had to be perceived as having an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. By adding the “substantially limits” language, the federal definition was more restrictive.

Until recently, and despite these differences, Ohio law has almost always looked to federal law in interpreting its state disability discrimination statute. Last month, however, the rules changed. In Scalia v. Aldi, Inc. (12/21/11) [pdf] (discussed yesterday), one Ohio appellate court said the following:

Because the plain language of the definition of disability contained in R.C. 4112.01 differs in substance from the ADA, it is not appropriate to look to federal materials interpreting the pre-2008 ADA with respect to perceived disability claims under Ohio law.

The key language in that quote is “pre-2008 ADA.” The ADAAA amended the definition of “regarded as” disability. Under the amended ADA, it is now irrelevant whether the actual or perceived physical or mental condition substantially limits a major life activity:

An individual meets the requirement of “being regarded as having such an impairment” if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.

Thus, as the court pointed out in Scalia v. Aldi, Ohio law and federal law now match on this issue. Because Aldi terminated Scalia before Congress amended the ADA, the court applied the pre-amendment version of the statute, and left open the question of whether Ohio courts should look to federal caselaw interpreting the amended federal statute.

What does all this mean for Ohio employers? Disability discrimination law is a mess. Until the General Assembly passes legislation clarifying whether interpretations of “disability” under R.C. 4112 are supposed to mirror the ADA, companies doing business in Ohio would be best served following the most expansive interpretation of the definition of disability possible under either statute.

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