New ADA Regulations Will Bring Necessary Change
I received a call from a reporter from MSNBC a few days ago. She indicated that she wanted to ask me some questions about the new Americans with Disabilities Act regulations recently put out by the EEOC.
The interview caused me to reflect on just how important the amendments to the ADA are --along with the new regulations --- and the struggle we have gone through to get here.
When the ADA was written, I remember being at a meeting in Cleveland with a group of employment lawyers which was sponsored by a committee of the American Bar Association. The guest speaker was a lawyer from D.C. and he was there to talk to us about the new legislation and give us a preview.
I remember listening to and reading all of these complex, confusing terms and thinking “this is going to result in tons of litigation and be a big nightmare." I walked out of the meeting and talked about my deep concern with some friends and colleagues from both sides of the bar.
We all seemed to reach the same conclusion – that this was going to be an ugly litigation mess -- and though we saw the handwriting on the wall, there was nothing we could do about it. The ADA was written and this is what it was going to say.
And indeed what our group of experienced employment lawyers predicted that day in 1990 turned out to be true. While the intent of the ADA was certainly noble, the way in which it was written has caused nothing but problems.
What’s more important is that the problems with the ADA have had a terrible negative effect on those individuals who were supposed to be protected by the legislation.
The ADA was intended to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. Because of the way in which the Act was written, combined with the way in which it has been interpreted by an exceedingly conservative federal judiciary, most cases got thrown out on summary judgment because the courts determined that the individual plaintiff employee was not disabled.
If he/she was not disabled, then he/she was not protected by the ADA from disability discrimination, and so they lost. Here’s an example of what I mean.
A secretary gets fired for going to chemotherapy. We file a case of disability discrimination. The employer argues that cancer is not a disability as defined by the Act. The judge buys the argument and the case gets thrown out. (based on a true story)
That scenario occurred thousands and thousands of times. Employees with disabilities were getting fired, or not hired in the first place, or passed over for promotions – and the cases were thrown out of court because the employers argued that the person was not disabled so the ADA did not apply.
Those rejected included people with AIDS, people with cancer, people with MS, people with epilepsy, diabetes, with prosthetic devices and the list goes on and on.
As a consequence, those of us who tried to represent these folks never even got to the stage of the case in which we had a chance to prove discrimination.
As I explained to the MSNBC reporter, in other discrimination lawsuits such as age, race, or gender discrimination cases, we don’t have a fight about whether the client is a woman, or over 40, or black.
We glide past step one, and move on to proof of the next step, that is:
- Was he or she was discriminated against because of age, race or gender?
- Was that person’s age, race, or gender a motivating reason for the discharge, failure to hire, lack of promotion, or any other adverse employment decision?
In disability cases, it was almost impossible to get to step two. Practically no one seemed to meet the criteria for coverage under the ADA. To be covered, the individual must:
- have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
- and be able to perform the essential functions of the job.
The courts decided – at the employers’ urging -- that the employee was either not substantially impaired, or that the impairment did not involve a “major life activity.”
Even if the plaintiff got over that hurdle – in other words was disabled enough to meet the criteria, it’s most likely that he or she was booted anyway.
That’s because the employer would then take the position that the individual was so restricted that he or she was not able to meet the essential functions of their job – and most courts went along with the companies’ argument.
In a nutshell, a person either wasn’t disabled enough to meet the definitional terms of the statute-- - or was too disabled to perform the “essential functions of the job” even if accommodated. (reasonable accommodation for the disabled is required under the ADA)
The long and short of it is that millions of people with disabilities had no protection from discrimination as a result of this legal mess.
The amendments to the ADA passed last year (Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008) fixed this problem and the regulations issued at the end of September provided most of the necessary clarifications to put real teeth into the fix.
For the first time, the EEOC regulations lists examples of impairments that will consistently meet the definition of a disability. Such impairments include (but are not limited to):
- Intellectual disabilities
- Partially or completely missing limbs
- Mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair
- Cerebral palsy
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscular dystrophy
- Major depression
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
There are new definitions for substantial impairment, major life activity, regarded as disabled, and more -- all of which are intended to overrule the previous restrictive federal court interpretations of the legislation(including the US Supreme Court).
The new ADA amendments along with the regulations plainly state that the ADA is intended to offer broad protection to people with disabilities as well as people who are regarded to be disabled by their employers and who are discriminated because of it.
Instead of litigating the issue of whether someone is disabled, the central issue of these cases will now be what they should have been all along – whether the employee was discriminated against because of a disability. That’s what was intended when the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed.
Too bad it took us nineteen years to get here – but as the old adage goes, better late than never.