Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Eighth Circuit Definition-of-Disability Case

Also while I was away, the Eighth Circuit issued an interesting decision in Nuzum v. Ozark Automotive Distributors, Inc.. It's a straightforward ADA Title I case. The plaintiff, a warehouse worker, was diagnosed with tendinitis and limited by his doctors to "lifting ten pounds constantly, twenty pounds frequently, and forty pounds occasionally." Once his employer determined that the restrictions were permanent, it refused to modify the plaintiff's job requirements to accommodate the disability, and it eventually terminated him.

Upholding summary judgment for the employer, the Eighth Circuit held that the plaintiff had no disability for ADA purposes. That bottom-line holding is not shocking, but the court said some interesting and perhaps troubling things in getting there: (1) that lifting is not "a major life activity in its own right" but is better understood as "part of a set of basic motor functions that together represent a major life activity"; (2) that "although the motor functions listed in the EEOC definition [of "major life activity"] are designated as major life activities in their own right, . . . a finding of disability depends not on whether the plaintiff can perform every one of those functions, but on whether the net effect of the impairment is to prevent or severely restrict the plaintiff from doinging the set of activities that are 'of central importance to most people's daily lives' or from working" (citations omitted); and (3) where an ADA plaintiff requests a reasonable accommodation for an impairment, the accommodation must relate to the "major life activity" that forms the basis for the plaintiff's claim of disability.

A couple of thoughts about the second and third of these statements: Statement number 2 expands the Supreme Court's holding in Toyota v. Williams, which said that the major life activity of "manual tasks" isn't substantially limited unless tasks of central importance to most people's daily life are limited. But it's not clear why the same analysis should extend to other major life activities. And statement number 3 is not clearly right, either. One point many disability rights activists make is that nondisabled people get accommodated all the time; it's only when disability enters the picture that employers don't want to accommodate. That kind of discrimination could occur whenever an individual has a condition that an employer thinks of as a disability, even if the limitation that makes the condition disabling for statutory purposes is not the limitation that the employer is refusing to accommodate. If both limitations from the same underlying condition, there isn't any good reason of policy for distinguishing between them. Nor is there a good statutory reason: the ADA requires "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability" (emphasis added) -- not reasonable accommodations "to the disability" or "to the substantial limitations on a major life activity." For this reason, the Eighth Circuit's discussion seems inconsistent with the analyses of those courts that have required reasonable accommodation to individuals "regarded as" disabled.


Blogger Donald said...

Great post. I had missed this case during the holidays, too.

You're right about the case expanding Toyota. In fact, the decision puts the Eighth Circuit in conflict with at least the Tenth Circuit, if not others: see footnote 5 of Albert v. Smith's Food & Drug Centers, Inc., 356 F.3d 1242 (10th Cir. 2004) ("The Court in Toyota did not set down the rule that all people claiming a disability must show an inability to perform the variety of tasks required to be performed in most people's daily lives. It is clear from the opinion in Toyota that the Supreme Court was concerned only with what substantially limited meant in terms of the performance of manual tasks which was the major life activity affected by the plaintiff's disability in that case.").

7:12 PM  

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