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Fifth Circuit Says Intermittent Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Is ADA Disability

    Client Alerts
  • July 02, 2009

Employers often struggle with accommodating employees diagnosed with chronic or reoccurring limiting conditions such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).  Earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reminded employers of their obligation to provide such accommodations, even where the employer suspects the validity of the underlying diagnosis.  In EEOC v. Chevron Phillips Chem. Co., the employee never disclosed her chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis in a post-offer medical questionnaire, but sought job accommodations after being hired.  Chevron refused, and she sued, alleging failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The lower court dismissed the claim, finding that the plaintiff was not substantially limited in any major life activity.  It noted that the CFS episodes were short-lived, non-permanent and non-severe.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding that the condition fell within the ADA’s definition of a protected disability.  Even though the plaintiff could go long periods of time between episodes, their intermittent nature does not exclude them from the ADA’s disability definition.  The court noted that when relapses occurred, they limited the plaintiff in the major life activities of thinking, sleeping, and caring for herself.  The plaintiff’s ability to work through these CFS episodes did not defeat her claim, because the major life activities outside of work were still impacted.

This case was decided based upon the ADA in existence prior to the new ADA Amendments Act of 2008.  Under the new law, it is likely that courts will be even more willing to characterize these generalized pain or fatigue conditions as ADA disabilities.  Employers cannot ignore or reject request for accommodation based upon their suspicions over the employee’s diagnosis or actual degree of impairment.