Monday, September 16, 2013

How does state law interpret a “disability” after the ADAAA?

This coming January will mark the five-year anniversary of the ADA Amendments Act. The ADAAA expanded the definition of a “disability” by undoing decades of Supreme Court precedent.

One example is the distinction between a long-term ailment and a short-term or temporary disabling condition. Under the originally drafted ADA, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Toyota Motor Mfg., Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams (2002), to be substantially limiting and meet the definition of a “disability” an impairment “must ... be permanent or long term.” With the ADAAA, Congress rejected the Williams construction of “substantially limiting” by requiring an individualized inquiry of an impairments limitations regardless of the duration of the impairment.

One lingering question, however, is whether courts interpreting state disability statutes will fall in line with the ADAAA, or chart their own course under their own separate state laws. Ohio courts, for example, have long held that they look to federal law to interpret Ohio’s employment discrimination statutes, including that which prohibits disability discrimination. Does this rule hold in state-law disability-discrimination claims in the absence of an intent expressed by the Ohio legislature to follow the changes in the ADAAA?

In Welch v. IAC Huron, LLC (N.D. Ohio 9/10/13), we get the beginnings an answer to this important question. Welsh involved an employee with a short-term, yet disabling, shoulder injury. She sued under Ohio’s disability discrimination statute after her employer terminated her during her medical leave. The employer argued that Welch was not disabled because Ohio’s disability discrimination law follows Williams and does not cover short-term medical conditions. The court, however, disagreed, tersely stating:

The Supreme Court of Ohio repeatedly has held courts considering disability discrimination claims under [Ohio law] may look to case law and regulations interpreting the ADA for guidance. The statutory definitions of “disability” under federal and Ohio law are nearly identical, and neither definition includes the temporal limitation Williams endorsed and Congress rejected.... I conclude Ohio courts no longer would apply the Williams temporary/permanent distinction Congress rejected, and that the temporal duration of Welch’s condition would not disqualify that condition as a disability under the meaning of [Ohio’s disability discrimination statute].

In other words, at least according to this court, Ohio courts follow the ADAAA in applying and interpreting Ohio’s disability discrimination statute. While the courts have yet to flush out this issue, employers should not hold out hope that Ohio courts will apply Ohio’s disability-discrimination protections more liberally than the ADAAA.

Instead of focusing on whether an employee is “disabled” under the ADA or its Ohio counterpart, employer should focus on reasonable accommodations and engaging employees in the interactive process. The distinction between who is (or is not) disabled is a legal issue to be worked out in costly and time consuming litigation. Attempting to accommodate a disabled employee is an issue to be worked out in the workplace in collaboration with the employee. I’ll let you decide which is the path of lease resistance.