The Difficulties Abound in a Discrimination Case Regarding the Disabled

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), disabled employees are protected from discriminatory treatment by their employers. The Act protects disabled employees from discrimination with regard to hiring, promotions, termination, compensation, training, and various other conditions of employment. Unfortunately, the Act’s protection is limited – only “qualified employees” are protected from those employers covered under the Act.

For an employee to be successful against their employer for a violation of the ADA, the employee must establish the following elements. First, the employee must have a disability. Second, the employee must establish that they are a “qualified individual” able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Lastly, the employee must establish that the employer discriminated against him or her because of the disability. Each of these requirements sound simple enough to meet; however, the U.S. courts have defined and interpreted each of the requirements even further.

“Disability” is a specific term of art. Not every “disability” or impairment, in the ordinary sense of the term, will qualify under the ADA. A “disability” is defined as A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; B) a record of such impairment; or C) being regarded as having such an impairment. Importantly, it is the first type of disability, i.e. one that substantially limits a major life activity, that has been extensively litigated upon.

The complexity of determining whether a disability substantially limits a major life activity is illustrated in a recent Fifth Circuit decision, Picard v. St. Tammany Parish Hospital. Picard, an employee of St. Tammany Parish Hospital, brought a claim against the hospital claiming they failed to make reasonable accommodations for her Charot-Marie Tooth disease (“CMT”). The plaintiff’s case alleged CMT disease hindered Picard’s ability to work as a transcriptionist, and as such, Picard requested a special computer program to help her transcribe work. The hospital declined to provide the program requested, but did offer other alternatives. Soon after, Picard quit her position with the hospital and filed suit, claiming a violation under the ADA.

Picard established that she had a disability – CMT disease; however, she failed to establish that the disease substantially limited a major life activity. Major life activities include performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, learning, working, and various other activities. Picard testified at trial that she had difficulty working, walking, and shopping. However, she failed to establish that her CMT disability substantially limited her major life activities. To determine whether a limitation is substantial, courts will consider 1) the nature and severity, 2) the duration, and 3) the short or long-term impact of the disability on the employee. The jury heard evidence that Picard could ameliorate the impact of her disability by concentrating, that she could still perform various functions of her job, and that she continued to excel in her position at the hospital. Based on this evidence, the jury concluded that Picard’s disability did not substantially limit her work or other life activities.

The Picard case emphasizes the complexity and interpretation required of various vague terms within the ADA. Each claim brought under the American with Disabilities Act is determined on the facts alone. Violations of the American with Disabilities Act are viable claims; however, in order to navigate through the many complex layers successfully, it is advisable to obtain legal help.

If you believe that your employer has discriminated against you with regard to any aspect of your current or future prospects of employment, please contact the Berniard Law Firm, toll-free, at 1-866-574-8005.