DEFENDING employers against claims brought by current and former employees under The Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") (1) requires a detailed understanding of ADA law and your client's business, as well as the ability to understand medical issues.
Disability discrimination charges continue to be a significant part of employers' litigation landscape. Between 1992 and 2003, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") received nearly 190,000 disability complaints, and employers paid monetary benefits at this administrative level totaling $481.3 million. (2)
This article focuses on how to win ADA cases for your employer client and examines cases that define disability under the ADA. It further explains what must happen to trigger the Act for plaintiffs. Additionally, the article outlines the necessary preparation required to successfully depose plaintiffs, and it discusses case authorities that explain what constitutes "a substantial limitation of a major life activity" and how to assess the limitation's impact on plaintiffs. The article also examines deposition strategies and plaintiffs' dilemmas surrounding disability claims. Finally, it addresses the importance of medical evidence as a key in winning summary judgment.
After you receive a disability discrimination complaint filed by your client's employee, your goal is to obtain an order from the U.S. District Court granting the defendant's (your client's) motion for summary judgment. The first step down the path to summary judgment success is to determine whether the plaintiff qualifies as an individual with a disability.
A. Determine Whether Plaintiffs Are ADA Disabled
1. What Definitions of Disability Apply?
Disability has been defined in many ways. Black's Law Dictionary defines disability as "[t]he inability to perform some function; an objectively measurable condition of impairment, physical or mental." (3) Webster defines disability as, "[t]he inability to do something; condition of being disabled; deprivation or lack of physical, intellectual or emotional capacity or fitness." (4)
Under workers' compensation statutes, like the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act, (5) disability can include both temporary and permanent impairments. These statutes refer to disability in terms of temporary and permanent loss of use and focus on a worker's ability to work. Disability is also defined by the nature of the diagnosis, the existence of a surgical procedure, or a mere physical restriction. Each of these distinct definitions of disability is associated with a statutory purpose assigned to each piece of legislation. Workers' compensation statutes are designed as remedial legislation to compensate injured workers and restore them to employment.
The definition of disability under the ADA is also associated with its specific purpose, which is to assure the equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic sufficiency of individuals with disabilities. (6) The ADA's definition of disability specifically requires a person to be seriously disabled before the Act is triggered. The ADA requires: (1) physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual; (2) a record of such impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. (7)
Many plaintiffs and plaintiffs' counsel view disability in terms of more common notions of disability, as those definitions referred to above. In addition to general notions of disability and the statutory definitions, plaintiffs also have a very personal and subjective view of their own disablement. Their view is very often broad, self-serving, and self-defined. ADA disability is not defined by subjective views of what people can and cannot do or their thoughts about what they choose to do. Neither is the ADA definition as simple as what people are able to do before a specific event and what they choose to do after a certain date, as is true in workers' compensation cases or under other disability provisions. …