Wednesday, April 9, 2014

New ergonomic chairs can avoid costly lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act

The modern workplace is a sea of chairs, cubicles and computers. What happens when employees suffer back injuries and they cannot sit all day? Do they have any rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act? The answer, as usual, is "it depends."

The case is Parada v. Banco Industrial De Venezuala, C.A., decided on March 25. The plaintiff fell on a sidewalk and hurt her back. She requested an ergonomic chair at work. That chair never arrived. Eventually, she as unable to come to work because of her back, so she was fired for job abandonment. She sues under the ADA.

There is a parallel universe going on in the federal courts over the ADA. The statute was amended in 2008 to broaden the class of "disabilities" in response to what Congress thought were heartless decisions from the Supreme Court that narrowed the definition of "disability" such that cases were being dismissed left and right over whether someone even had coverage under the statute. But the amended ADA took effect in 2009, and cases that pre-dated the amendments are still winding through the courts, which apply the old ADA standards governing who is disabled under federal law. This case is one of them.

The Second Circuit (Raggi, Lohier and Lynch) says here that "the inability to sit for even a prolonged period of time may be a disability depending on the totality of the circumstances." The Court reaches that conclusion after dealing with Colwell v. County of Suffolk (2d Cir. 1998), which the district court in Parada said means that "an impairment which limits the ability to sit for long periods of time is not recognized as a substantial limitation [on a major life activity]." That was a misreading of of Colwell, the Second Circuit says. There is no per se rule that the inability to sit for long periods of time is a substantial limitation only if the plaintiff cannot sit at all. The ADA does not like bright-line rules. And having clarified that, the Court of Appeals sends the case back to the district court to see if there is a factual issue for the jury about whether plaintiff's inability to sit for long periods of time equals a substantial limitation of a major life activity.

No comments: