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Seventh Circuit Agrees That Driving Is Not ADA Major Life Activity

    Client Alerts
  • May 01, 2009

Last week, EmployNews reported that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review whether driving in and of itself is considered a major life function under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Instead, the Supreme Court left it to lower federal courts to determine whether driving restrictions create protected status under the ADA.

In Winsley v. Cook County, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last week joined other federal appellate courts in concluding that driving is not an ADA major life activity.  The plaintiff was involved in an automobile accident, and claimed post-traumatic stress syndrome.  Her job as a case manager required her to drive to clients’ homes.  When her request to be transferred to part-time duty was rejected, she sued for failure to reasonably accommodate her disability.  However, her physician’s information provided to the employer only discussed her inability to drive as a restriction caused by the PTSD.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim, concluding that driving is not an ADA major life activity.  The court concluded that unlike actual major life activities, driving is not “so important to everyday life that almost anyone would consider himself limited in a material way if he could not [drive].”  The court noted that many Americans choose not to drive, further diminishing its status as a fundamental life activity.  If recognized, driving would be the only major life activity to require a state license.

Although decided using pre ADA Act Amendments statutes, the Seventh Circuit noted that new law’s failure to include driving in its enumerated list of major life activities.  The court did state that a driving restriction could contribute to an employee’s inability to work, which is a major life activity under the ADA.  However, work can only be used as a major life activity to support disabled status under the ADA if the employee is restricted from a wide class of jobs, and not a specific position.

Winsley continues a string of federal court decisions that appear geared toward life in major urban centers.  Other federal courts may conclude that for rural or suburban residents, driving is an essential life activity.  Given federal courts’ unwillingness to accept driving as a major life activity, plaintiffs can be expected to focus on the impact of a driving impairment on working and other recognized activities.