Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Can't We All Just Get Along?: The Treatment of "Interacting with Others" as a Major Life Activity in the Americans with Disabilities Act

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Can't We All Just Get Along?: The Treatment of "Interacting with Others" as a Major Life Activity in the Americans with Disabilities Act

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 with the stated goal of providing a "clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities."1 Congress determined that, at the time of the passage of the Act, approximately forty-three million Americans had mental or physical disabilities.2 By enacting the ADA, Congress meant to "provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities."3 Now, fourteen years after the ADA's enactment, the success of these goals is in doubt. A 1998 survey of cases brought under Title I of the ADA4 indicated that employers prevail in approximately 92 percent of the final case decisions.5 The survey also indicated that employers prevail in 86 percent of the administrative complaints resolved by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.6 One explanation for these pro-defendant results may be that courts encounter an abundance of meritless claims, and thus these results are justified. On the other hand, it could be that courts and jurors harbor stereotypes about disabled plaintiffs that influence their decisions.7 An alternative possibility is that the ADA sets forth an analytical framework that makes it very difficult for plaintiffs with certain disabilities to prevail. Thus, many plaintiffs with meritorious claims may lose their ADA cases not because of incorrect stereotypes by judges and jurors, but rather, because of the language of the ADA itself.

The ADA differs from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and other antidiscrimination laws in that Congress defined what it means to be disabled, and the plaintiff has the burden of proving that she fits within this definition to be covered by the Act.8 To be considered disabled, an individual must have "a physical or mental impairment" which "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities."9 Alternatively, an individual will be covered if she has "a record of such an impairment" or is "regarded as having such an impairment."10 Even if an individual can establish that she is disabled, the Act only prohibits discrimination against individuals who are otherwise qualified for the job.11 An individual is otherwise qualified only if she can perform the "essential functions" of the job "with or without reasonable accommodation."12 Finally, the Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to facilitate job performance by a disabled individual but only if the reasonable accommodation can be made without "undue hardship" on the employer.13

For many ADA plaintiffs, this framework makes it very difficult to establish a successful discrimination claim based on an alleged disability. The ADA's requirement that the individual be substantially limited in some major life activity is particularly troublesome to plaintiffs who claim that they are discriminated against because of a mental disability.14 Courts generally agree that activities such as walking, lifting, and performing manual tasks are major life activities, but these are the sorts of activities that are affected mainly by physical disabilities.15 On the other hand, courts have been reluctant to regard as major those activities that are affected by mental disabilities.16 Evidence of this reluctance is the current circuit court split over whether the ability to interact with other people constitutes a major life activity.17 Since many mentally disabled plaintiffs are not limited in their ability to walk, breathe, or perform other physical activities, they must show that some other activity is substantially limited. The activity that many mentally disabled plaintiffs point to is the ability to interact with others. Social interaction is often the function most inhibited by mental disability.18 Therefore, it is critical for these plaintiffs that the circuit split is resolved in favor of recognizing the ability to interact with others as a major life activity. …

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