Monday, August 16, 2010

A real life example of the difference between the old ADA and the amended ADA

Two years after Mantych Metalworking hired Dan Wallace, he suffered a heart attack. He also had a history of back problems. Five years later, Mantych fired him, and he claimed disability discrimination. In Wallace v. Mantych Metalworking (Ohio Ct. App. 8/13/2010) [pdf] the court of appeals concluded that Wallace’s medical problems did not rise to the level of a disability worth of protection from discrimination:

Wallace presented sufficient evidence of back trouble—surgery and rehabilitation—to establish that he had a physiological condition affecting his musculoskelatal system. Also, the evidence shows that Wallace had a heart attack and heart-bypass surgery, evidence that is adequate to establish that he had heart disease. But whether these physical impairments substantially limited one of his major life activities is less clear.
The evidence of the major life activities that Wallace’s impairments affected is composed only of conclusory statements. Wallace’s affidavit states that “[a]s a result of my heart attack … I suffered from shortness of breath,” … and that he had an “impaired ability to work long hours because of shortness of breath, dizziness (standing), [and] muscle cramps (walking).” … The evidence therefore, while establishing that Wallace had physical impairments, does not establish that the physical impairments substantially limited one of Wallace’s major life activities.

This result seems reasonable. Wallace was not “disabled” because his medical conditions, while real, did not have much of an effect on his day-to-day activities. Yet, under the ADA Amendments Act, this issue would likely have a different result. Under the ADAAA, major life activities do not only include day-to-day activities such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working, but they also include the operation of a major bodily functions, including the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. Under the current iteration of the ADA, a heart attack, which affects the circulatory system and caused Wallace shortness of breath, would likely qualify as a disability.

Under the ADAAA, almost every medical condition will qualify as a disability. The focus in disability discrimination cases has shifted from whether an employee is legally “disabled” to whether they are “qualified” (whether they can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation), and whether the employer reasonably accommodated the disability.

Yet, as the concurring opinion in Wallace aptly pointed out, Wallace still loses this case on the issue of whether he was a “qualified individual with a disability”:

Even if Wallace’s adverse health conditions were to constitute a disability, Wallace would also have to prove that he could safely and substantially perform the essential functions of the job in question in order to prove his disability claim against Mantych…. The hours of work an employer requires of an employee, unless otherwise limited by law or by contract, are functions of the job which are as essential to its performance as is the employee’s ability to perform the particular tasks the job involves. It is undisputed that Wallace is unable, due to his adverse health conditions, to work the number of hours per week that Mantych requires. There is no evidence that Mantych had agreed to allow Wallace to work the reduced number of hours per week to which his health condition now limits him. Therefore, Wallace cannot prove that he can substantially perform the essential functions of the job from which he was discharged, preventing a judgment against Mantych on Wallace’s claim for disability discrimination.

The result of this case may be the same under the ADA and the ADAAA, but the route to that outcome is very different. The fact that an employee such as Dan Wallace might qualify as disabled means that his employer must engage in the interactive process, determine an appropriate reasonable accommodation, and make that accommodation work. In other words, employers must be more attuned to employees’ medical conditions, because more employees will qualify for protection under the ADA. Because the ADA is partly a proactive statute, this increased coverage imposes increased responsibilities that employers ignore at their own risk.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or