Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A prediction on how Ohio state courts handle the ADA Amendments Act

It's been fairly well reported, here and elsewhere, that Congress has passed the ADA Amendments Act, and once President Bush signs it, as he is expected to do, the ADA's changes will go into effect on January 1. Beginning on January 1, the definition of what qualifies as a "disability" under the ADA will be much broader statutorily. One of the key changes is that the Sutton v. United Airlines U.S. Supreme Court case, which held that whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is to be determined with reference to the effects of mitigating measures on the impairment, will be expressly overturned.

The open question, however, is what will happen to the definition of "disability" under Ohio law. R.C. 4112.01(A)(13) defines "disability" as:

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.

This definition mirrors the old definition of "disability" in the ADA, and, in fact, Ohio courts often look to the old federal definition and the cases interpreting it (such as Sutton) to give some meat to the rather bare-bones statutory definition.

The question, then, is what will Ohio courts do with Ohio disability discrimination law after the ADAAA becomes federal law. Will Ohio courts follow Sutton and its progeny, or judicially adopt the new federal statutory definition? To the extent that the Ohio legislature has not changed the statutory definition of a "disability" under R.C. 4112, Ohio courts would be overstepping their bounds by doing so. The Congress made a decision to change the federal definition of disability. If Ohio wants to follow suit, it should do so through its legislature, and not via the courts' ad hoc adoption of the new definition.

If I am correct, and Ohio state law continues to mirror the old federal definition, it will be curious to see if plaintiffs in disability discrimination cases continue to favor state courts (with their better jury pools) and state law (with its more expansive damages), or will move towards federal claims in federal forums to take advantage of the broader coverage afforded by the ADAAA.