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The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is about to undergo a major change. Last week, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”), which will overturn two prior Supreme Court cases and dramatically increase the scope of employees covered by the ADA. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law this week, and the new legislation will take effect on January 1, 2009. For access to the text of the ADAA, click here.
Generally, to be entitled to protection under the ADA, an individual must show that he has a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” In two prior cases, the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of this definition. The ADAA rejects these cases, however, and states that the term “disability” is to be “construed broadly” to cover more physical and mental impairments.
In Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999), the Court held that, if a person takes measures to correct or mitigate a physical or mental impairment, the effects of those measures must be considered when determining whether that person is “substantially limited” in a major life activity. Over the past decade, this has limited the number of viable claims under the ADA because, for instance, whether an individual with seizures was disabled depended on his condition while taking medication to control his seizures. The ADAAA overturns this ruling, however, by stating that future decisions of whether an individual has a disability must be made without regard to the effects of corrective devices or medications. The only exception is that the impact of ordinary eye glasses and contacts still may be considered with respect to one’s vision.
In Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), the Supreme Court also narrowed the scope of the ADA by holding that, to be substantially limited in performing manual tasks, an individual must have an impairment that “prevents or severely restricts” him from doing activities of “central importance to most people’s daily lives.” The Court also held that the restrictions must be permanent or long-term. Under the ADAAA, this is no longer the case. The statute now says the term “substantially limits” must be construed broadly, and that an individual may disabled even if the effects of his impairment are “episodic, in remission, or latent.”
Other ramifications of the ADAAA include additional examples of major life activities (related to communication, working, and concentration) and the inclusion of bodily functions, such as digestive and reproductive functions, to the list of “major life activities.” The ADAAA also authorizes the EEOC to issue new regulations further explaining the scope of these changes. Although the regulations are not expected until late 2009, it is clear that more physical and mental impairments will be covered by the ADA, meaning that employers can expect increased litigation and greater scrutiny of their obligations to accommodate employees in the workplace.