Thursday, July 1, 2021

"Temporary" ailments may qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act

In a ruling that expands liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Court of Appeals has ruled that a prisoner who hurt himself while playing basketball can proceed under the statute even though his injury was a temporary disability. This ruling arises in the context of an inmate's medical treatment, but the reasoning will also probably apply in the employment context.

The case is Hamilton v. Westchester County, issued on June 30. Plaintiff tore his miniscus when he stepped on crumbled concrete in the recreational yard. He claims jail officials ignored the medical advice from the Westchester Medical Center and denied him a knee stabilizer and an immediate MRI, causing him "severe pain." He sues under the ADA, which was amended in 2008 to reverse Supreme Court rulings that had narrowly interpreted the statute in defining who has a "disability" under the statute. The district court dismissed the case, holding that plaintiff's disability was only temporary and therefore not covered under the ADA.

The Court of Appeals (Raggi, Calabresi and Chin) reverses. Under the ADA, "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity. . . . To establish a claim under Title II, a plaintiff must demonstrate '(1) that she is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) that she was excluded from participation in a public entity's services, programs or activities or was otherwise discriminated against by a public entity; and (3) that such exclusion or discrimination was due to her disability.'" The question is what constitutes a "disability"?

While the Supreme Court narrowly interpreted "disability" in a series of rulings in the 1990s, Congress amended the statute (we now call it the ADA Amendments Act, or ADAAA), emphasizing that "t]he principal purpose of the ADAAA was to overrule the Supreme Court's arguably narrow interpretation of what constitutes an ADA-qualifying disability set forth in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., and Toyota Motor Mfg., Ky., Inc. v. Williams, and to make clear that the substantial-limitation requirement in the definition of 'disability' is not an exacting one." 

In addition, "[t]he term 'substantially limits' shall be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA," and "is not meant to be a demanding standard."  28 C.F.R. § 35.108(d)(1)(i).  Relatedly, the term "substantially limits" is to be interpreted and applied to require a lower degree of functional limitation than the standard required prior to the ADAAA.  28 C.F.R. § 35.108(d)(1)(vi)."

After noting plaintiff's physical difficulties arising from the knee injury and in particular his inability to move around the shower and endure strip searches, the Court of Appeals holds in this Rule 12(b)(6) context that 

Hamilton’s claim could not be dismissed as a matter of law simply because the injury causing these limitations was temporary.  In reaching that conclusion, we join the First, Fourth, and Seventh Circuits in holding that under the expanded definition of "disability" under the ADAAA, which now covers  impairments "lasting or expected to last less than six months," 28 C.F.R. § 35.108(d)(ix), a short-term injury can qualify as an actionable disability under the ADA. In other words, a plaintiff's actual disability claim under the ADA does not fail solely because he failed to "state that his [disability] will be permanent or chronic . . . [or] indicate the duration or long-term impact of his impairment such that the Court may infer that his injury was not temporary." 

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