Tuesday, October 09, 2012

S.D. Miss. Fails to Give Effect to ADAAA

Just over a week ago, Judge Henry T. Wingate of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi issued an opinion and order granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment in Flynt v. Biogen Idec, Inc., 2012 WL 4588570 (S.D. Miss., Sept. 30, 2012).  Flynt is an employment case.  Flynt (essentially a pharmaceutical sales representative) was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, allegedly as a result of his supervisor's abusive and hostile conduct; his symptoms included projectile vomiting, diarrhea, and panic attacks (which continued for years).  After his diagnosis, Flynt took a six-month disability leave, and the employer held his job for him.  At the end of the leave, Flynt offered to return if he could be assigned to a different supervisor.  But the employer said that was impossible because only one supervisor was assigned to the region.  When Flynt didn't return to work, the employer fired him.  All of this conduct took place after the effective date of the ADA Amendments Act.

Flynt sued under the ADA, and the employer moved for summary judgment.  The district court granted the motion on the ground that Flynt did not have a disability.  The court relied exclusively on pre-ADAAA regulations and cases -- including the Supreme Court's Sutton and Toyota cases, which the ADAAA's statutory findings expressed Congress's intent to overturn:
An individual is “substantially limited” in working when he is
significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities. The inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.
Id., § 1630.2(j)(3)(I).
In this case, plaintiff has not shown that his impairment prevented him from doing a broad class of jobs; he has only alleged that he could not work with Richards. Yet, even his own physician did not restrict him from working with Richards. Plaintiff does not contend that he could not work at his same job if he were assigned another supervisor.
The court agrees that its prior decision in Ghoston v. Nissan North America, Inc., No. 3:05cv766–HTW, 2008 WL 879737 (S.D. Miss. Mar 30, 2008), cited by defendant, is controlling in the instant case. In Ghoston, a Nissan employee was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and placed on a temporary medical leave. After a period of leave, his psychiatrist recommended that he could return to work if he were placed with a different supervisor. As did Biogen, Nissan rejected this “accommodation,” and the employee did not return to work. The employee then sued under the ADA.
This court granted summary judgment in favor of Nissan, stating the following:
This residual restriction, however, establishes no ADA “disability” because even permanent inability to work under a specific supervisor does not imply any substantial limitation on major life activities. It is well-settled that the inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working and therefore does not constitute a “disability” under the ADA.
Id. at *4.FN5
FN5. In support, this court cited Bridges v. City of Bossier, 92 F.3d 329, 332 (5th Cir.1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1093 (1997); Toyota Mfg., Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 532 U.S. 184 (2002) (employee must have impairment that prevents or severely restricts activities of central importance to most people's daily lives; inability to do repetitive work with hands or arms at or above shoulder level provides insufficient evidence or substantial limitation in major life activity); Moreno v. Brownlee, 2004 WL 34860, *4 (5th Cir.2004); Price v. Marathon Cheese Corp., 119 F .3d 330, 336 (5th Cir.1997).
As the defendant notes in its memoranda, this court cited numerous cases that support the proposition that inability to work with a specific person does not establish disability, nor does an employer have a duty under the ADA to accommodate such a restriction. The court finds very little distinction in the case now before it, and these legal precedents are controlling herein.
The court acknowledged Flynt's argument that the ADAAA had overturned those prior precedents, but it rejected the argument:
The court finds that the amended Act does not change the definition of disability or make all physical or mental impairments disabilities. Even under the amendments, a disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” 29 U.S.C. § 12102(1). The plaintiff has not presented any evidence which would confirm that his depression and anxiety limits him in any major life activity. Not being able to work with Richards, as a matter of law, does not substantially limit any major life activity of working. See Hatfield v. Quantum Chemical Corp., 920 F.Supp. 108, 110 (S.D.Tex.1996) (not being able to work with supervisor did not substantially limit major life activity); Schneiker v. Fortis Ins. Co., 200 F.3d 1055, 1062 (7th Cir.2000) (personality conflict with supervisor does not establish disability). The conflicts plaintiff had with Richards, even if they caused depression and stress, simply cannot establish disability under the law. 
As regards the major life activity of working, the Fifth Circuit has held: “When the major life activity under consideration is that of working, the statutory phrase ‘substantially limits' requires, at a minimum, that plaintiffs allege they are unable to work in a broad class of jobs.” Sutton v. United Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471, 483 (1999). See also Bridges v. City of Bossier, 92 F.3d at 334 (holding that a broad class or range “implies more than two job types.”). In this case, plaintiff only contends that he cannot work with his supervisor—certainly not a “broad class of jobs” as he is required to show.
Now I don't know how the plaintiff's lawyer presented his case, and the defendant had a decent (though hardly airtight) argument that it provided a sufficient reasonable accommodation here, but that analysis of the definition-of-disability issue is just wrong.  Based on the evidence Judge Wingate recounts, the court shouldn't have even gotten to the question of substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.  Flynt's impairment seems clearly to have caused a substantial limitation in the digestive and bowel functions (which the ADAAA expressly defines as major life activities).  One of the key purposes of the ADAAA was to expand the other aspects of the disability definition so that courts would not have to reach the substantial-limitation-in-working question.

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