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