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Significant Amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act on the Horizon

August 28, 2008

One of the most important legal developments to affect the American workplace in the past two decades is the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.).  The ADA was championed by then-Senator Bob Dole; one of its purposes was to eliminate employment discrimination against disabled individuals.  The ADA protects qualified individuals who, due to a disability, may need some reasonable accommodation in order to perform the essential functions of the job.

Under the ADA, a disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more . . . major life activities.”  Employees who are affected by disabilities are entitled, upon request, to reasonable accommodation by their employers.  The term “reasonable accommodation” cannot be defined generally, as it varies from case to case.  In substance, however, it means that an employer must make reasonable changes (such as widening the space between desks so a wheelchair can pass by) to enable a disabled worker to do his/her job.

In recent years, disability-rights advocates have become concerned over decisions issued by the Supreme Court and lower federal courts that they perceive as narrowing the scope of the ADA.  Two of the key cases are Sutton v. United Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999) and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002). 

In the Sutton case, the Court ruled that mitigating measures should be considered in determining whether a person actually suffers from a disability.  For example, if a person’s disability can be mitigated with medicine or a prosthesis, he or she may not be considered disabled in the eyes of the law.

In the Williams case, the Court ruled against a worker who claimed that carpal tunnel syndrome was a disability that prevented her from working on an assembly line.  The court said that the ADA needed “to be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled” and held that “a person must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.”  The Court also observed that the impairment must be “permanent or long term.”  Applying these standards, the Court noted that a person with carpal tunnel syndrome can still perform many ordinary tasks:  the plaintiff could still “brush her teeth, wash her face, bathe, tend her flower garden, fix breakfast, do laundry and pick up around the house” although she had to “avoid sweeping. . . . quit dancing . . . occasionally seek help dressing and…reduce how often she plays with her children, gardens and drives long distances.”  On this basis, the Court concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

In June 2008, the House of Representatives passed HR 3195, which is known as the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act (the “ADAAA”).  HR 3195, which will be considered by the Senate this Fall, is designed to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions in Sutton and Williams and make other important changes to the ADA.

Specifically, HR 3195 provides that the ADA is to be construed broadly.  This is a rejection of the standard announced by the court in the Williams case.  In addition, the bill provides that an impairment that substantially limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities, and that an impairment that is “episodic” or “in remission” constitutes a disability if it substantially limits a major life activity.

The bill also includes a provision that the determination whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity shall be made without reference to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures such as prosthetics, medication, and other assistive devices.  This is an attempt to legislatively overrule the Sutton case.  (Eyeglasses are excluded from the list – under HR 3195 in its present form, they may still be considered as ameliorating a disability). 

Another important clause in the pending legislation is one stating that the term “substantially limits” means to “materially restrict.”  While this particular amendment may not change specific court decisions, it is intended to provide more uniformity in the administration of the ADA’s broadly-worded standards.

The ADAAA is a key piece of legislation for employers to track in the upcoming legislative session.  The bill is sure to be heavily debated in the Senate and will likely be further revised.  We will provide future updates regarding these proposed amendments to the ADA as they occur.