Employee’s Inability to Use A Computer Keyboard Not a "Disability" Under The Americans With Disabilities
A key issue in many cases brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., is whether the plaintiff is "disabled" within the meaning of the statute. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled that a newspaper reporter whose repetitive stress injuries rendered her unable to use a computer keyboard or write for significant periods of time was not "disabled" within the meaning of the ADA. Thornton v. McClatchy Newspapers, Inc., 2001 WL 914019 (9th Cir. August 15, 2001).
Prior to bringing suit, the plaintiff, Thornton, had filed a workers' compensation claim against McClatchy Newspapers, alleging injury to her neck for work-related stress disorder. At that time, McClatchy made various accommodations for her, including workstation adjustments, new chairs, modified work schedules and a gym membership. Thornton later filed another workers' compensation claim, alleging injuries to her arm, shoulder and wrist, and she was subsequently granted an extended leave of absence from work because of her condition. When Thornton sought to return to work with an extensive list of restrictions from her physician, including limitations on the amount of time she could write or use a computer keyboard, McClatchy considered several accommodations, including the use of voice recognition technology and reassignment to a different position. However, McClatchy concluded that none of these options were viable and that Thornton's condition rendered her unable to work as a reporter. Thornton then filed suit under the ADA and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), claiming that McClatchy unreasonably failed to accommodate her condition.
The ADA defines a disabled employee as one who (1) has "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of more major life activities"; (2) has a "record of such impairment"; or (3) is "regarded as having such an impairment." In her suit, Thornton claimed that she was "disabled" under the ADA because she was substantially limited in the major life activities of "working" and "performing manual tasks," and because McClatchy also "regarded" her as disabled. However, the district court concluded that Thornton was not disabled under the ADA or FEHA, and granted summary judgment for McClatchy on both claims. In its decision the district court assumed that the standard for disability under the ADA and FEHA were the same.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling that Thornton was not disabled under the ADA. Specifically, the Court rejected Thornton's argument that she was substantially limited in the major life activity of "working" and noted that she had "failed to present evidence of the jobs from which she was precluded and of the relevant labor markets for that class of jobs." The Court also rejected Thronton's claim that she was substantially limited in the major life activity of "performing manual tasks." The Court stated that Thorton could perform a wide range of manual tasks, including grocery shopping, driving, doing laundry and dressing herself, and that her inability to type and write for extended periods of time was "not sufficient to outweigh the large number of tasks that she could perform."
The appellate court also disagreed with Thornton's argument that McClatchy "regarded" her as disabled under the ADA. The Court ruled that although there was evidence that McClatchy was aware of Thornton's keyboarding and handwriting restrictions, there was no specific evidence that it viewed her as "substantially limited in a major life activity." Significantly, the Ninth Circuit held that the fact McClatchy had considered various measures to accommodate Thorton's restrictions did not establish that it regarded her as disabled. The Court stated that "when an employer takes steps to accommodate an employee's restrictions, it is not thereby conceding that the employee is disabled under the ADA or that it regards the employee as disabled. A contrary rule would discourage the amicable resolution of numerous employment disputes and needlessly force parties into expensive land time-consuming litigation."
Although the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Thorton's ADA claim, it vacated the district court's dismissal of her FEHA claim because of a newly enacted California law which broadened the scope of the FEHA. This new statute provided that "Although the [ADA] provides a floor protection, this state's laws has always, even prior to passage of the [ADA] afforded additional protections…. " (See California Law Broadens Protections for Disabled Employees and Applicants. Because of this new law, the Court remanded the case back to the district court to determine what effect, if any, the statute had on Thornton's FEHA claim.
The question of whether an individual plaintiff is "disabled" under the ADA is highly fact specific. However, at least within the Ninth Circuit (which covers California and several other western states), the Thornton case establishes two key principles. First, the fact that an employee's condition prevents her from operating a computer keyboard or writing for significant periods does not necessarily mean that she is "disabled" under the ADA. Second, the Ninth Circuit does not accept the proposition that an employer "regards" an employee as disabled under the ADA merely because it has considered or made accommodations for the employee's restrictions. It remains to be seen, however, whether the same standards will prevail under the broader protections of the California state law. Similar issues arise in New York, where the New York State and New York City discrimination laws generally provide more expansive protections to employees than does the ADA. See A Comparison of the Definition of "Disability" in the Americans With Disabilities Act, the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law.