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Expansive Disability Definition Applies to 'Regarded as' Disabled Claims

    Client Alerts
  • October 03, 2018

Ten years ago, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). The law was intended to address what legislators believed was courts’ overly strict reading of the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, alleging an actual disability is not the only way that someone can claim violation of their rights under the ADA. The law also protects persons with a history of a disability or those persons “regarded as” disabled. Regarded as disabled claims come from persons who do not actually have a qualifying impairment but allege that their employer discriminated against them based on an incorrect perception.

Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the question of what medical conditions form the basis for a regarded as disabled claim. In Nunies v. HIE Holdings, Inc., the plaintiff complained about shoulder pain and alleged that he was forced to resign two days later as a result of his employer’s perception about the impact of the injury on his job performance. The district court dismissed his ADA claim on the basis that the employer did not subjectively believe that he had a substantial impairment.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the matter for trial. The court said that the lower court applied an incorrect test, based on the employer perceiving that the plaintiff had an impairment of a major life activity. Under the ADAAA, the plaintiff only has to provide evidence that the employer believed he had an impairment that was more than minor and transitory. The Ninth Circuit went beyond this, holding that the plaintiff met his burden of demonstrating that he had an actual disability, based on pain associated with the shoulder injury.

This case demonstrates the difficulty of trying to defend an ADA claim on the basis that the plaintiff does not meet the definition of a disabled person. Whether actually disabled or regarded as disabled, even seemingly minor medical issues will satisfy the plaintiff’s burden of demonstrating protection under the law. Employers faced with employees claiming medical issues should assume that the ADA will apply and treat requests for accommodation in line with that law’s requirements.