Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA)
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination against disabled workers or job applicants and covers all private employers with 15 or more employees and state and local governments, regardless of the number of employees. The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which was signed into law in 2008, expands the interpretation of the ADA’s coverage and the definition of what disabilities are covered under it.
The ADA’s coverage had been narrowly construed by case law since a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions starting in 1999. The ADAAA specifically targets two of these decisions — the 1999 decision in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., which limited the ADA’s protection for employees and job applicants whose disabilities could be “mitigated” by measures such as medication, treatment, or assistive devices, and the 2002 decision in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Ky, Inc. v. Williams, which tightened the standard for individuals to be considered “substantially limited” by their disability.
In March 2011, more than two years after the ADAAA went into effect, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued long-awaited final regulations interpreting the law’s requirements. For the most part, the final regulations provide exactly the type of comprehensive guidance employers were hoping for, and they are a dramatic departure from the proposed regulations the EEOC issued in September 2009. Read the final ADA regs.
Definition of disability under the ADA and ADA Amendments Act
Congress enacted the ADA to protect qualified employees and applicants with disabilities from discrimination by employers. (In general, individuals are “qualified” if they can perform the essential functions of a job, either with or without a reasonable accommodation.) The ADA requires a covered employer to make reasonable accommodations to allow a disabled individual to perform the essential functions of his job.
To be protected, a worker must establish that he is disabled within the meaning of the statute, and not every illness or ailment qualifies as a “disability” under the ADA. Individuals are considered to be disabled under the ADA if:
- they are actually disabled (i.e., they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities);
- they have a record of a disability (i.e., they had an actual disability in the past but are no longer disabled); or
- their employer regards them as being disabled.
The ADAAA provides that the term “substantially limits” must be interpreted consistently with the “findings and purposes” of the ADAAA, and the ADAAA final regulations provide some helpful rules of construction regarding the term. The findings and purposes are provided as a list of general and specific requirements at the beginning of the ADAAA, which champion a less demanding standard than under the ADA. The ADAAA also clarifies that it is to be construed “in favor of broad coverage of individuals under this Act, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this Act.”
The ADAAA provides an extensive list of tasks that constitute “major life activities,” including physical tasks such as walking, standing, and lifting; mental tasks such as learning, reading, and thinking; and even the operation of major bodily functions, such as immune system function, cell growth, and reproductive function. The final regulations also make clear that whether something is a major life activity is to be interpreted very expansively, and the fact that a particular activity is left out of the statute or regulations doesn’t preclude it from being a major life activity.
Other changes the ADA Amendments Act made to the ADA
The ADA Amendments Act includes other changes to the ADA such as:
- expansion of the definition of a “major life activity”;
- noting that an impairment that substantially limits one major life activity doesn’t have to limit other major life activities to be considered a disability;
- clarifying that impairments that are episodic or in remission are considered a disability if they would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
- overturning the Sutton standard by specifying that determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity must be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures; and
- providing that an individual doesn’t have to establish that his impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity to be “regarded as being disabled.”
HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including the Americans with Disabilities Act
Accommodations for employees and applicants with disabilities
Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for all qualified individuals with a disability unless doing so would cause you an undue hardship. Because the standard is high, most employers will have trouble proving that an accommodation causes such a hardship.
You should note that granting extended leave to an employee is considered a form of reasonable accommodation. Thus, even if the employee has used up his sick leave, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, and vacation leave, you still may need to grant additional leave for employees with disabilities.
Claims by employees and job applicants of being regarded as disabled
The ADAAA defines the requirements of being “regarded as having an impairment,” specifying that workers or job applicants who are subjected to discrimination prohibited by the ADA, whether or not an actual or perceived impairment does limit the person’s major life activities, would still be regarded as having an impairment.
What happens when an employee files a disability discrimination charge with the EEOC?
As with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employee first must file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before filing a complaint alleging an ADA violation against his employer.
Employees (or the EEOC) can sue for lost wages, benefits, reinstatement, and attorneys’ fees. An employer may be liable for capped compensatory damages as well as punitive damages if the court finds intentional discrimination.