At long last the EEOC has issued its final regulations for the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act. In so doing, the EEOC has taken Congress’ words contained in the Act and declared (repeatedly) that the definition of “disability” is to be read very broadly and that employers should instead focus on whether discrimination has occurred or an accommodation is needed. As we've noted in our prior ADAAA coverage, we think that many more disability lawsuits will be filed and far fewer of them will be dismissed on summary judgment. As the EEOC sees it, “many more ADA claims will focus on the merits of the case.”
What Hasn’t Changed
Most of the terms used in the original ADA haven’t changed. The Final Regulations do not alter the definitions of “qualified,” “reasonable accommodation,” “direct threat,” and “undue hardship.” And there are still three ways to come within the scope of the statute: “Actual” disability; “record of” disability; and “perceived as” disabled. The “perceived as” category has some substantial changes, as discussed below.
What Has Changed
1. Mitigating measures can no longer be taken into account when determining whether a person is disabled. (Except, individuals with with regular vision correction such as eyeglasses or contact lenses are still considered in their mitigated state for purposes of determining whether they have a disability.) This means that if the employee’s condition is entirely treated (heart disease is kept under control by medication, for example), the employee’s “disability” is evaluated without consideration of the treatment. Of course, if a person’s condition is controlled entirely by medicine or an assistive device or some other measure, it may mean that no accommodation is needed.
2. A “regarded as” claimant need no longer prove that he or she is perceived as a “disabled” person (i.e., a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity). Instead, a “regarded as” claimant need only show that the employer discriminated against him or her based on a belief that the employee (or applicant) had an impairment. However, if the employer can show that that the employee’s (or applicant’s) condition is actually just “transitory [i.e., lasting six months or less] and minor,” then the employee can’t be “regarded as” disabled. The six month time limit does not apply to evaluation of an actual disability or a record of a disability. And, in fact, the “rules of construction” contained in the Final Regulations specify that a disability may last less than six months.
3. The list of examples of “major life activities” is expanded and now includes “major bodily functions.” The rules make it clear that this is not a demanding standard. The major life activity need not be central to daily living, and it doesn’t have to severely or significantly limit the person’s ability. The final rule provides non-exhaustive lists of what constitutes a major life activity. Such activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, working and performing major bodily functions. Bodily functions include the immune system, special sense organs and skin, normal cell growth, digestive, genitourinary, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, cardiovascular, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, and reproductive functions.
4. Given the new lists, some conditions will almost always be deemed to substantially limit a major life activity. The ones mentioned in the Final Regulations are: Deafness, blindness, intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation), partial or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. Of these, perhaps the most troubling are autism and PTSD since both are ill-defined in the medical literature and exist on very broad spectrums of impairment.
5. The changed definition of “disability” applies to Title II of the ADA (State and local governments) and Title III (private places of public accommodation).
6. The phrase “qualified individual with a disability” has disappeared and instead the Final Regulations refer to “individual with a disability” and “qualified individual” separately. Again, these changes are intended to focus the inquiry on whether discrimination has occurred, and away from whether the individual meets the definition of “disability.”
More Lawsuits to Follow
In our experience, the vast majority of employers do try to fully comply with the ADA. Unfortunately, the ADAAA and these new Final Regulations assume just the opposite; by removing practically any burden on the employee to show that he or she is disabled, Congress and the EEOC have clearly shifted the burden to employers.
For more ADAAA information, check out:
- Questions and Answers on the Final Rule Implementing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008
- Questions and Answers for Small Businesses: The Final Rule Implementing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008
- Fact Sheet on the EEOC’s Final Regulations Implementing the ADAAA
As reported in the Oregonian, the Department of Justice this week implemented amendments to a number of regulations governing Title II and Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Title II of the ADA applies to public entities, while Title III applies to public accommodation. While the new rules do not apply to Title I, which covers employment, they will impact any business that constitutes a place of public accommodation, which includes all businesses that provide access to members of the public.
The primary change that will impact employers whose businesses constitute a place of public accommodation is a new definition of what constitutes a “service animal” under the Act. The purpose behind the rule change is to combat the dilution of the “service animal” label, “which has resulted in reduced access for many individuals with disabilities who use trained service animals that adhere to high behavior standards.”
The definition includes two primary changes: First, animals intended only to provide emotional support are no longer considered service animals. The second change limits the definition of a service animal to include only dogs that have been individually trained to do work that benefits an individual with a disability. Other animals, wild or domesticated, trained or untrained, no longer qualify as service animals, except, in limited circumstances, miniature horses. Places of public accommodation are not required to admit customers or members of the public with “service animals” that do not meet this new, limited, definition.
We want to stress again that this change does not apply to the part of the Act that relates specifically to employment, and does not in and of itself require employers to allow employees to have service animals. Employers presented with a situation where an otherwise qualified employee with a disability requests use of a service animal should engage in their usual reasonable accommodation analysis. This new rule does have the potential to inform that process for employers, by providing insight as to what's considered “reasonable” in the public accommodation context.
For more information on the ADA rule changes, including the text of the rules and fact sheets for employers, go to the Department of Justice’s ADA home page.
Yesterday the Oregon Supreme Court conclusively ruled that employers are not required to accommodate the use of medical marijuana in the workplace, ending years of doubt and confusion on this critical issue. Click here to read the Court’s opinion in Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor and Industries.
In Emerald Steel, a drill press operator was terminated after his employer learned he was using medical marijuana to treat a medical condition that qualified as a disability under Oregon law. The employee filed a claim with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, alleging that the employer’s refusal to accommodate his use of medical marijuana violated Oregon law requiring employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability. A judge ruled that the employer did not properly engage in the interactive process to determine whether other reasonable accommodations were possible.
The employer appealed that decision, arguing that neither federal nor state disability law requires employers to engage in the interactive process with users of medical marijuana, given that their use of marijuana is prohibited by federal law. The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the employee on the basis that the employer failed to preserve that argument in the case below. Further, a prior Oregon Court of Appeals case—Washburn v. Columbia Forest Products—had held that employers do have a duty to accommodate the use of medical marijuana by a disabled employee.
On appeal, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the trial judge and the Court of Appeals, and reversed the Oregon Court of Appeals’ decision in Washburn. The Supreme Court held that employers do not have to accommodate employees’ use of illegal drugs. Because marijuana—medical or otherwise—is illegal under federal law, employers are not required to accommodate its use under any circumstance.
Since the original Washburn decision, many Oregon employers have assumed they were obligated to accommodate the use of medical marijuana by disabled employees. The Emerald Steel decision should give all Oregon employers comfort in knowing that, until or unless federal law changes, they are definitely not required to accommodate medical marijuana use. A similar ruling from the Washington Court of Appeals is being reviewed by that state’s supreme court. Stoel Rives represents the employer in that case. Click here to read the World of Employment's coverage of that case.
The Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy today launched a new website that may be of use to employers seeking information on how to accommodate a disabled worker. At www.disability.gov an employer can research the applicable law and regulations, get ideas for appropriate reasonable accommodations, and locate additional resources. For example, clicking here will take you to information about accommodating deaf and hearing impaired workers. And here is useful information about tax incentives for complying with the ADA. The new site offers a myriad of social networking capabilities including a Twitter feed, RSS feeds and a blog. The site also includes a handy multi-state guide which employers could find very useful as they work to comply with all applicable federal and state disability laws.