Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008: The Pendulum Swings Back

Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008: The Pendulum Swings Back

Article excerpt


In September 1987, Francis J. Kelly, the senior buyer in Drexel University's purchasing department, fractured his hip, leaving him with a noticeable limp. (1) Kelly's physician diagnosed him with severe post-traumatic degenerative joint disease (2) and protrusio acetabulum, (3) both of which caused Kelly "great difficulty in walking around." (4) Drexel later eliminated Kelly's position at the university. (5) Kelly, sixty-eight years old at the time, filed charges of discrimination against Drexel under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). (6) The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Drexel, finding that Kelly did not qualify as disabled under the protections enumerated by the ADA. (7) Although the Third Circuit found that Kelly's condition forced him to move slowly and take great care when maneuvering up and down stairs, it nonetheless held that Kelly's impairment did not "substantially limit" his ability to walk because he did not require a cane or other assistance in order to move around. (8) Kelly's physical impairment, though limiting, apparently did not reach the threshold required for ADA protection. (9)

In 1986, Abigail Guzman-Rosario began part-time work for United Parcel Service, scanning and repositioning packages as they moved along a conveyor belt. (10) In November 1997, Guzman-Rosario noticed severe pain in her side and spent a few days in the hospital undergoing tests. (11) Ultimately, Guzman-Rosario was diagnosed with ovarian cysts, which had to be surgically removed. (12) Despite successful removal, Guzman-Rosario continued to suffer from intermittent nausea and pain. (13) At times, her symptoms were so severe that she had to miss work and spend the day at home lying down. (14) Despite medical documentation of her condition, UPS grew impatient with Guzman-Rosado's absences, (15) and the company terminated her employment. (16) In rejecting Guzman-Rosario's claims, the First Circuit found that the ADA did not reach those with temporary afflictions and thus could not protect Guzman-Rosario. (17)

These cases illustrate the courts' general reluctance to find plaintiffs disabled within the meaning of the ADA. The stated purpose of the ADA is "to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities." (18) Unfortunately, the statute's definition of disability, (19) in its original manifestation, provided little guidance to courts, and its application has failed to achieve the Act's stated goal. The ADA defines a disability as: "(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment." (20) As interpreted, however, "a surprising number of people who one might assume would benefit from the ADA are left outside its protections," (21) typically because of the courts' strict construction of the statute's vague definitional boundaries. (22) Frequently, disabled individuals like Kelly or Guzman-Rosario find their lawsuits dismissed "because their impairments are not considered limiting enough to qualify as disabilities" under the ADA. (23)

In several respects, courts' interpretational difficulties stem from the original ADA's ambiguous language. (24) The judiciary has had trouble deciphering how broadly or narrowly to construe "major life activity," despite administrative guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). (25) Further, the courts have created a paradox in interpreting the substantially limits prong of the ADA, often finding plaintiffs at once too disabled and not disabled enough. (26) As a result, the courts' strict approach to the ADA's definitional boundaries has created serious impediments to meritorious disability cases. (27)

Although the ADA was originally passed in 1990, by 1996 the judicial climate had already chilled to ADA claims. …

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