Disability & ADA: Employers and Insurers Not Obligated by the ADA to Provide Equal Benefit Plans for Physical and Mental Disabilities-Weyer V. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp

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Disability & ADA: Employers and Insurers Not Obligated by the ADA to Provide Equal Benefit Plans for Physical and Mental Disabilities-Weyer v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.1-The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a group disability insurance policy offered as a fringe benefit that provides more benefits for physical disabilities than mental disabilities, does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or related Washington state statutes.2

Appellee Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (Fox) provides as a fringe benefit to its employees an opportunity to buy a group disability insurance plan administered by Appellee UNUM Life Insurance Company of America (UNUM). Under this policy, an employee disabled due to alcohol or drug use, or mental illness, could receive benefits for two years while those with physical disabilities could receive benefits until the age of sixty-five. At the time Fox chose this policy, UNUM offered a similar policy that did limit benefits for mental illness to two years. However, Fox chose the limited plan because it was less expensive for the employees and thus a more appealing fringe benefit.3

Appellant Helen Weyer worked for Fox and elected to enroll in the group policy. In 1994, Weyer became totally disabled due to severe depression. She stopped working and as specified in her policy, received benefits for the following two years. She subsequently sued Fox and UNUM for violation of Titles I and III of the ADA and related Washington state statutes on the grounds that the plan discriminated against individuals with mental disabilities. The district court granted Fox and UNUM summary judgment on all counts, holding that the ADA does not prohibit insurance companies from offering policies that provide a shorter term of coverage for mental disabilities than for physical disabilities.4

The court of appeals reviewed the district court decision de novo and upheld the decision to dismiss the case. First, the court examined whether Weyer was a "qualified individual" under Title I of the ADA. Title I states that a "covered entity shall not discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to . . . terms, conditions, and privileges of employment."5 The statute further defines "qualified individual" to be one who can still perform "the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds."6 Citing this plain language, the court held that Weyer, by identifying herself as totally disabled, cannot fit within the parameters of the definition as she no longer has the ability to perform her job. In so holding, the Ninth Circuit noted that the majority of circuits have similarly concluded that only persons who can perform essential job functions can sue under Title I.7

Similarly, the court held that former employees do not fit within the parameters of the definition of qualified individual. Weyer argued that former employees should be included within the definition in order to effectuate Congressional intent. Since the ADA specifically protects fringe benefits and since most benefits, such as pensions, are not meaningful until the post-employment period, the ADA should cover former employees. The Ninth Circuit dismissed this argument, reasoning that the statute uses only the present tense, "can perform," and is not ambiguous.8 Finally, the court noted that even if Weyer were a qualified individual under Title I, she could not sue UNUM because UNUM does not fit within the ADA's definition of "covered entity" as UNUM acted solely as an administrator and not as an employer.9

The court used similar reasoning to determine that Title III is not applicable to UNUM. Title III prohibits discrimination "in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation."10 UNUM argued, and the court agreed, that it did not meet this definition because it is not a "place of public accommodation. …