Views From Above

People who suffer from disabilities often have encounter difficulties in the workplace. For instance, a person who suffers from a hearing disability may be required to make telephone calls. Similarly, an employee may suffer from a condition such as lupus that makes standing for long period of time difficult. Fortunately for these individuals, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) can require employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow the disabled to perform in their jobs.

An accommodation may involve any change in the workplace or in the way that an employer usually conducts its business that enables a disabled person to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Accommodations may involve changes to the job application process, an employee’s job requirements, or benefits and privileges offered to all employees.

In some instances, employees may have been terminated even after requesting an accommodation. The employee can win such a case by proving that the employee was an individual with a disability, the employee is otherwise qualified to perform the job requirements, and the employer fired the employee because of the handicap.

For several years, the courts limited the scope of the ADA, meaning that fewer employees would be entitled to accommodations. One of the more significant cases in this respect was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams. In that case, an assembly line worker named Ella Williams worked at a Toyota plant and developed a condition that caused her physical pain when she worked on the line. Her employer agreed to several of her accommodation requests, but she continued to have difficulty. Her job duties were eventually changed, and she was required to perform tasks that caused more physical problems. Her doctor eventually prevented her from working, and Toyota fired her.

The Court had to resolve whether Williams was disabled for purposes of the ADA. That question focused on whether her impairment substantially limited a major life activity. Williams argued that her condition impaired her ability to perform at her job, but she was still able to perform routine tasks during her daily life, such as cooking and so forth. Because of this, the Court ruled that she was not “disabled” under the ADA.

Six years later, Congress responded to the Toyota decision and other cases by enacting the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). Congress designed this law to expand the scope of what conditions constitute major life activities as well as the scope of what substantially limits major life activities. The Act also provided greater rights in other areas, and Congress referred specifically to the Toyota case as one of the reasons for enacting the new law. Presumably, then, a court would have treated Williams as disabled had she brought her claim under the ADAAA.

Employees nevertheless still have difficulty proving claims in federal court. For a variety of reasons, courts have rejected employee claims that they were fired because their employers discriminated against them due to the employees’ disabilities. In most of these recent cases, employees have argued that the ADAAA should given them greater protection, but several courts have nevertheless ruled in favor of the employers.

In one case in North Carolina, a change to the ADA made in the 2008 legislation cut off a plaintiff’s claim. An employee who suffered from a temporary condition argued that her employer discriminated against her because her employer “regarded her as having a disability.” However, the ADAAA specified that an employee could no longer maintain a claim simply because the employer regarded the employee as disabled. Accordingly, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina rejected the employee’s claim.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed a case involving a nurse who had asked to be exempted from regular attendance. She had worked as a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit for 11 years when she began to suffer from fibromyalgia, which caused her to lose sleep because of chronic pain. Because of her condition, she exceeded the number of allowed absences, leading the hospital to make changes in her schedule in an attempt to accommodate her condition. She eventually requested to be exempted from the hospital’s attendance policy altogether. The hospital approved several leaves of absence, but the hospital finally fired the nurse for missing too many days at work.

The nurse argued that she was disabled and that she was fired because of her disability. The hospital acknowledged that she was indeed disabled but that regular attendance was an essential function of her position. Accordingly, the hospital argued that the nurse was not “qualified” under the ADA because under the Act, an individual is “qualified” if “with or without reasonable accommodation, [the employee] can perform the essential functions of the employment position….” The Ninth Circuit agreed, concluding that a neo-natal nurse’s regular attendance was indeed part of the essential job function. Therefore, the court ruled in the hospital’s favor.

In yet another case, an employee suffered from Prinzmetal angina, which caused spasms in the employee’s coronary arteries. The employee was able to control the condition by taking nitroglycerin pills. However, these pills could cause him to suffer from hypotension as well as dizziness, lightheadedness, and fatigue. The employee operated a forklift for Whirlpool Corporation, and his condition directly affected his ability to perform his job. He was eventually forced to take 26 weeks of unpaid leave, and he sued Whirlpool for discriminating against him on the basis of his disability.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case. Under the ADA, a disabled person is not “qualified” for a specific position if the person poses a direct threat to others and that threat cannot be eliminated with a reasonable accommodation. In the employee’s case, the condition itself caused spasms, while the nitroglycerin pills caused him to experience dizziness and other problems. The court concluded that the employee posed a direct threat to others in operating the forklift, and therefore he was not “otherwise qualified” under the Act. Thus, the court ruled in Whirlpool’s favor.

These cases illustrate that employees often receive the accommodations they request but may struggle if the employees try to sue for damages caused by alleged discrimination. Courts are more inclined to find that a person is disabled, but employees may still have a difficult time proving other elements under the Act.


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