In 2008, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to expand the definition of protected medical conditions under the statute. The amendments were in part a response to a series of cases where federal courts decided that plaintiffs with cancer and other seemingly serious medical issues did not meet the definition of protected disabled persons under the ADA. Since then, disputes over the threshold issue of disabled status have declined. Last week however, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) reminded employers that some medical conditions still fall outside the ADA’s protections.
In Israelitt v. Enterprise Services LLC, the plaintiff was fired based on performance and disciplinary issues. He sued, claiming that his employer failed to accommodate him and retaliated against him based on his medical condition — an arthritic big toe joint. The district court dismissed the suit on summary judgment and the plaintiff appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, agreeing that the alleged medical condition did not rise to the level of an ADA disability. The court characterized the ailment as minor and not substantial as required under the ADA because the plaintiff had little to no impairment of his mobility resulting from the arthritis.
On another point, the Fourth Circuit for the first time concluded that plaintiffs suing for ADA retaliation do not have a right to a jury trial. The statute only provides for equitable damages for retaliation making a bench trial appropriate.
In most cases, a colorable claim of a significant medical limitation is enough to satisfy the plaintiff’s burden of alleging an ADA-protected disability. However, this case demonstrates that employers can seek dismissal of ADA suits based on seemingly minor medical conditions.
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