Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

In the Land between Two Maps: Perceived Disabilities, Reasonable Accommodations, and Judicial Battles over the ADA

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

In the Land between Two Maps: Perceived Disabilities, Reasonable Accommodations, and Judicial Battles over the ADA

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

On May 19, 1998, after a heated argument with his superior, Edward Williams was suspended from the Philadelphia Housing Authority Police Department (PHA). Williams, a PHA police officer for 24 years, called a counselor later that night. During the conversation he remarked, "I understand why people go postal. ": According to later accounts by the counselor, Williams spoke of "smoking people, going postal, and having the means to do it."2

Williams did not return to work and began to call in sick.3 After an evaluation, a local counselor concluded that he suffered from major depression.4 PHA's staff psychologist evaluated Williams and recommended that he be temporarily reassigned to a position that did not require him to carry a weapon but added that Williams could "work around other officers who will be wearing their weapon."5 PHA misconstrued the psychologist's recommendations and believed that Williams was unable to work around armed officers.6 On October 14, Williams requested assignment to the PHA radio room.7 PHA, incorrectly believing that he was not qualified for any position as a result of the psychologist's recommendations, did not assign him the job.8 On December 3, a human resources manager at PHA asked Williams to file for medical leave.9 Williams did not respond.10 On December 29, PHA sent Williams a termination letter.11

Williams filed suit against his former employer in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In Williams v. Philadelphia Housing Authority Police Department?2 Williams argued that PHA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) by discriminating against him.13 Williams alleged, in part, that he had a "disability" under the ADA because PHA believed that he was disabled.14 Due to this disability, Williams argued, PHA was required to reasonably accommodate him so that he could continue working.15 When he requested accommodation by a transfer to a radio room position, PHA failed to respond and subsequently terminated him.16 Williams alleged that PHA discriminated against him by failing to provide the required accommodations.17 In essence, Williams argued that PHA's misperception had unlawfully barred him from working.

The ADA prohibits discrimination by employers against employees with disabilities.18 The definition of "disability" does not distinguish between having "a physical or mental impairment" and "being regarded as having such an impairment."19 This strong protection for nonexistent disabilities was intentional, as the Act's legislative history shows: Congress adopted the view that "society's accumulated myths and fears about disability and diseases are as handicapping as are the physical limitations that flow from actual impairment.20

Under the ADA, failing to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee is an act of discrimination.21 Reasonable accommodations, according to the EEOC, could include such changes as job restructuring or reassignment to a vacant position.22 Combining the "disability" and "discrimination" definitions suggests that employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations to the extent that they are perceived as disabled.23 In Williams's case, he was barred from working because of PHA's misperception of his impairment and its refusal to accommodate him.24 PHA's actions thus appear to qualify as discrimination under the ADA.25 The Third Circuit, in reviewing Williams's case, agreed.26

This notion of accommodating a perceived disability, rather than an actual disability, has become a controversial concept, but it is one that only a few cases have tackled.27 The Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits have held that the ADA does not afford these Williams-like requirements.28 The Eighth Circuit argued that such requirements would create a disparity in treatment among impaired but nondisabled employees.29 The ADA, concluded the court, could not reasonably have been intended to create such a result. …

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