Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Amended ADA does not revive Plaintiff's migraines case

Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2008 to make it easier for plaintiffs to show they have a protected disability. The law was amended in response to Supreme Court rulings that narrowed the scope of the Act. The amended Act is called the ADAAA. The question now becomes this: which impairments or conditions may predicate ADAAA lawsuits that were unable to succeed in the past?

The case is Woolf v. Strada, issued on February 6. Plaintiff worked for Bloomberg LLP as a sales representative. He began suffering migraine headaches that left him temporarily incapacitated, impairing his ability to work. At some point, plaintiff told management that the migraines placed him at risk of a stroke or heart attack resulting from work-related stress, which according to his neurologist, constituted the primary trigger for the migraines. Plaintiff was ultimately fired after receiving a series of low performance reviews. He says the real reason for his termination was his disability. To prevail he must show that the migraines are a protected disability under the ADAAA.

Plaintiff says the migraine headaches are a disability under the ADAAA because they substantially limit one or more major life activities: working. Under the cases interpreting the pre-ADA amendments, "working" was not a protected disability unless the plaintiff was unable to work a class, or broad range of, jobs. That equation made it difficult to win ADA claims, because plaintiffs were often able to work jobs other than the ones they were fired from (or denied an accommodation for). Plaintiff argues on appeal that the district court got it wrong in dismissing his case in relying on pre-amendment cases because the amended ADA expressly requires courts to interpret the Act "in favor of broad coverage of individuals" and that an impairment that "substantially limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability." That's a great argument, but the Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Sack and Failla [D.J.]) rejects it, and plaintiff loses.

The Court says that, despite the favorable statutory construction model advanced in the amended ADA, 

nothing in the ADAAA's text, or its legislative history for that matter, suggests that Congress intended to modify, let alone abandon altogether, the well-established understanding that an employee's "inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working." This longstanding, common-sense principle of law recognizes that employees who are precluded only from doing their specific job, or from working under a specific supervisor, do not have a "disability." Rather, an employee alleging a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working must show that the limitation affects the ability to "perform a class . . . or broad range of jobs."

Had Congress intended to change this fundamental principle of law in the ADA's regulatory scheme, Congress could have done so. Indeed, Congress "does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes." We decline to read a limitation into the statute that was so clearly not enacted by Congress.
The Second Circuit notes that all other courts around the country that have taken up this issue agree that the ADAAA does not alter the longstanding rule that "working" is not a major life activity unless the impairment affects a broad range of jobs. Since plaintiff in this case "does not attempt to show that his work-induced impairment substantially limited his ability to work in a class or broad range of jobs, no reasonable factfinder could conclude that Woolf has a 'disability' within the meaning of the ADA." The case is dismissed for good.

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