Joel Dillard & Associates

Representing Working People

Regarded as Disabled

Today's post is by the firm's summer clerk, Schuyler Konior-Kinneman.

Society's accumulated myths and fears about disability and disease are as handicapping as are the physical limitations that flow from actual impairment.
– Justice William J. Brennan Jr.

Since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, the law regarding discrimination against those with disabilities has been strengthened. With the amending of the ADA by Congress in 2008, the law provides greater coverage in protecting the employment rights of the disabled. So who is disabled? Although it may seem obvious in the real world, in the legal world it is a complicated issue.

To be considered disabled under the ADA an employee has to meet one of the three requirements: (1) the employee has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) the employee has a record of such impairment; or (3) the employee is regarded as having such an impairment. In other words, even if you are not disabled any more, or if you have never been disabled but other people think you are, then you may be protected by the ADA.

My focus in this post is on the third type: being regarded as disabled. This means the employer cannot rely on stereotypes about people with medical conditions. This factor is becoming a larger part of disability discrimination law since the ADA has recently been amended to make it easier to prove you are regarded as disabled. Promotions, the amount of work hours, pay rate, and general interactions at the workplace can all be affected by an employer's belief that you are disabled.

The standard used to be that an employee had to prove that their employer wrongly believed, not only that they had a medical condition, but that the condition affected them in a major way. Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999). This was often difficult to prove because employers aren't likely to get into the details of exactly what they think employees can and cannot do. Instead they simply act on their beliefs without explanation, then try to justify themselves later.

Congress recognized this problem, and in 2008 amended the ADA to make it crystal clear that someone who is wrongly regarded as having a medical limitation or condition is covered by the Act. This means employees don't have to prove exactly what the employer thought was wrong with the employee. Instead, the employee just has to prove that the employer thought the employee had a limitation or condition which the employee didn't have, and discriminated against the employee because of it.

[A] plaintiff now need only show that his employer perceived him as having an impairment; he is not required to show that he is substantially limited in a major life activity, as is still required to meet the other two definitions of disability. A plaintiff is also not required to show how or to what degree [his employer] believed the impairment affected him.

Mendoza v. City of Palacios, 962 F. Supp. 2d 868 (Dist. Court, SD Texas 2013) (quoting Hilton v. Wright, 673 F.3d 120, 129. (2d Cir. 2012))

I'm glad that Congress has addressed this. It makes it easier for employees who have been mistreated to get some kind of justice. No longer can employers hide behind a technicality to get away with doing terrible things to the disabled.


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