Seyfarth Synopsis: For the first time since the enactment in 2008 of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which broadened the definition of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Ninth Circuit addressed, and expanded, the definition of an individual who is “regarded-as” disabled under the act. The court held that a plaintiff establishes he is “regarded-as” disabled if he shows “an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment,” regardless of whether the impairment actually limits, or the employer perceives the impairment to limit, a major life activity. The decision reminds employers to proceed carefully when making personnel decisions regarding employees with injuries or impairments, even if they may not rise to the level of a disability.
In Nunies v. HIE Holdings, Inc., the plaintiff Herman Nunies was a former delivery driver for HIE Holdings in Honolulu, who had requested a transfer to a part-time warehouse position. The parties disputed the plaintiff’s stated reason for his transfer request, but the plaintiff claimed he requested the transfer to a less-physical position because he had developed shoulder pain. Plaintiff alleged that the Company initially approved the transfer but subsequently denied it and forced him to resign after he reported his shoulder pain to his employer. The employer cited budget cuts as the reason for denying the transfer and advised plaintiff that his position no longer existed, but evidence showed the employer had an open warehouse position at the time of plaintiff’s termination.
Plaintiff filed a lawsuit asserting disability discrimination under the ADA and state law, alleging that his employer forced him to resign because of his shoulder injury. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff could not assert a prima facie case of disability discrimination because he was not disabled under the ADA, among other arguments. The district court agreed, granting summary judgment to the employer. In its decision, the district court held that plaintiff did not have a disability and was not “regarded-as” having a disability under the ADAAA, because plaintiff did not provide any evidence that the employer subjectively believed that plaintiff “was substantially limited in a major life activity.” The district court further held that the plaintiff did not establish an actual disability because he “did not identify any major life activities that were affected by his impairment” — indeed, plaintiff had continued to work without apparent issue or limitation. As further evidence that plaintiff was not disabled, the district court held that plaintiff had not demonstrated that his shoulder pain substantially limited any activity compared to most people in the general population.
The plaintiff appealed, joined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) as amicus curiae. The EEOC explained it offered its position to the appellate court because other district courts in the circuit had “failed to heed” the broader “regarded-as” disability definition promulgated by the ADAAA.
The Ninth Circuit’s Ruling
The Ninth Circuit agreed that the ADAAA expanded the scope of the ADA’s “regarded-as” definition and that some district courts continued to rely on pre-ADAAA case law to apply the older, narrower “regarded-as” disabled definition. Specifically, the district court in the Nunies case had erroneously concluded that Plaintiff had failed to meet his burden of presenting evidence that his employer “subjectively believed that Plaintiff is substantially limited in a major life activity.” Based on the plain language of the ADAAA, the appellate court held that plaintiff was not required to present evidence that the employer believed that plaintiff was substantially limited in a major life activity. Instead, the plaintiff could simply show that the employer terminated plaintiff “because of” his knowledge of the shoulder pain, regardless of whether the employer actually perceived the shoulder pain as a disability, and regardless of whether or not the shoulder pain amounted to an actual disability. Notably, the Ninth Circuit’s expansion of the scope of the “regarded-as” disability definition follows decisions in the First, Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Circuits which similarly defined the definition under the ADAAA.
Additionally, although the employer had argued that the ADAAA “regarded-as” disabled definition does not apply to “transitory and minor impairments,” the appellate court noted that this exception is an affirmative defense with the burden of proof on the defendant, and not the plaintiff. The court held that the employer had not set forth evidence to establish plaintiff’s shoulder pain was transitory and minor.
Therefore, the appellate court held that Plaintiff had established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employer regarded him as having a disability.
The Ninth Circuit further reversed the circuit court’s holding that the plaintiff could not establish his shoulder pain was an actual disability. Specifically, the appellate court found that because plaintiff could neither work nor lift more than 25 pounds nor lift his arm above chest height without pain, he had identified two major life activities affected by his impairment. The court noted an impairment “need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict the activity” in order to substantially affect a major life activity. Therefore, the court found an issue of fact as to whether plaintiff had an actual disability.
Takeaways for Employers
The protections under the ADA, the ADAAA, and state law are ever-evolving and sometimes nebulous. As disability-related issues continue to increase in the workplace, employers should proceed carefully when considering personnel decisions involving individuals with potential injuries or impairments, as they may meet the “regarded-as” disabled definition. This decision is an important reminder to employers to ensure that any adverse actions taken against such employees are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons, and to carefully document the business reasons for those adverse actions.
If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating personnel decisions relating to employees with medical afflictions, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.