In 2008, Congress passed a landmark set of amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The new law went into effect January 1, 2009. Under the old ADA, most people who tried to sue for employment discrimination on the basis of a disability were found not to be disabled for the purposes of the ADA, which meant that most plaintiffs who sue under the ADA would lose, no matter how profoundly their disability interfered with their ability to work. The Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) changed the focus of a disability discrimination claim from the existence of the disability to the discriminatory actions that an employer took.
What has the ADAAA changed?
The ADA was designed to allow people to sue an employer for taking a hostile action (such as not hiring, firing, passing up for promotion, etc.) against a person based on their disability. It also required employers to accommodate a disabled employee’s handicap, so long as that accommodation did not cause “undue hardship” to the employer. Prior to the 2008 amendments, most courts would dismiss what was otherwise a clear ADA claim because the employee was not “disabled” for the purposes of the law. The Supreme Court found in Toyota v. Williams that a person was not disabled for the purposes of the ADA unless their disability substantially interfered with a “major life activity,” such as eating, bathing, or brushing one’s teeth. If an injury or disease simply interfered with someone’s ability to do his or her job, but it did not affect the ability to perform a “major life activity,” it was not considered a disability.
The 2008 ADAAA expressly overruled the Supreme Court’s narrow definition of disability in favor of a broader definition. Under the new definition, any condition that a person has that interferes with a major life activity (which includes working) or major organ system is disabled for the purposes of the ADA. Additionally, if an employer takes some sort of hostile action against an employee based on a belief that the employee was disabled in some way can be sued under the ADA, whether or not the employee was actually disabled.
What does this mean for me?
Although worker’s compensation law will compensate you if you become disabled due to your job, it does not apply to the many accidents and medical conditions that any of us can have happen outside of work. However, your employer must try to accommodate any disability that may befall you, so long as it does not cause undue hardship to him. If your employer refuses, you can recover money for that discriminatory action.