The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") is getting out the word on how it views the new Amendments to the ADA.   Peggy Mastroianni, Esq., Associate Legal Counsel of the EEOC, Washington, DC, office recently spoke to lawyers and human resources professionals in Pasadena, CA.  I attended the EEOC Training Institute’s seminar, and here is a portion of what Attorney Mastroanni (whose job it is to help the EEOC interpret what EEO statutes mean for the public and EEOC employees) said about the ADAAA.

She stated that the amendments changed the definition of "disability," but do not change anything about the merits of, or substance of, the law or how to accommodate an employee. Thus, once an employer determines someone is covered by the ADA (is disabled), everything else stays exactly the same.   However, the amendments clarified existing law that if an employee is “regarded as” disabled, the employee is not entitled to accommodation.

Broadened Definition of “Disability”:  She noted that California law already had this broad definition of disability a long time ago.  Originally, the ADA said that all you needed was an “impairment” (easy to prove by an x-ray or prozac prescription) and "substantially limits" a major life activity.  But, federal courts had been ruling that “substantially limits” required a high showing of limitations by the employee.  Attorney Mastroianni referred to the Sutton trilogy of U.S. Supreme Court cases from 1999.  

  • First case:  employee had poor eyesight, but vision was corrected with eyeglasses.  
  • Second case:  employee had hypertension, but took medication for the condition.  
  • Third case:  employee had monocular vision, but was able to train his brain to address his deficits.

All employees had taken "mitigating measures," so did they have a disability?   Did they have a condition that "substantially limited a major life activity," and is that question to be answered in light of their mitigating measures?   Attorney Mastroianni noted that the EEOC and 9 out of the 10 federal circuit courts held that an employer/courts, etc. should not even consider mitigating measures at all in determining whether an employee is disabled.  Only 10th Circuit Court of Appeals was in disagreement and the U.S. Supreme Court adopted that view.  Thus, courts were holding that diabetes with insulin was not a disability; epilepsy with medication and no seizures in years was not a disability, etc.

In the 2002 case, Toyota Motor Mfg., Ky. v. Williams, where the employee had tendonitis (which had developed from applying chemicals all day to the tops of cars), the U.S. Supreme Court said that proving a disability is a "demanding standard"–even though the ADA statute itself repeatedly says it is to be "interpreted broadly."

Attorney Mastroianni notes that Congress partially blamed the EEOC because the EEOC’s own regulation defines “substantially limits" as “substantially restricts,” which was inconsistent with Congressional intent.  So, the bottom line concerning mitigating measures is, you cannot look at an employee’s mitigating measures to determine whether he/she has a disability (except where the mitigating measure is ordinary corrective lenses).  

What about "episodic" medical conditions, such as, Multiple Schlerosis, Epilepsy, Bi-polar Disorder, or Asthma?  Are these episodic conditions "disabilities"?  Yes, if they are "substantially limiting" a major life activity while the episode is occurring.   

What if the condition is in remission (for example, cancer)? Yes, if the employee would be substantially limited if it (the cancer) were to recur, then it is a disability.  

This change in the federal law will no doubt affect California state law cases where these gray areas may be at issue.   Employers should insure that their managers are aware of these changes. Workplace investigators should be on the look out for revised EEOC regulations to make sure these claims are correctly investigated and that their findings are consistent with the new law.