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Employment Blog

Disabling Condition? Protected Conduct?

Authored by Dean R. Dietrich
Posted on August 10, 2015
Filed under Employment

Two recent court decisions have opened the door for continued scrutiny on whether or not an individual is protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act.  In a Nebraska Federal Court case, the District Court held that an employee was not protected because of her severe obesity but this case is on appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.  In an Oregon Supreme Court case, the Court decided that an individual suffering from psychological conditions was not protected when the individual threatened to kill co-workers on numerous occasions and with “chilling detail.”

In the Nebraska decision, the District Court granted summary judgment and found there was no evidence that the individual was perceived as disabled when an offer of employment was rescinded because of the belief that the individual could develop health risks in the future.  This case is on appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and will present another opportunity to address whether or not severe disability constitutes a disabling condition that is protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Prior Federal Court decisions have held that obesity is not a disability, however, those decisions came before the 2008 amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act that made it much easier for a person to claim being disabled and therefore  protected by the Act.  This decision will open the door to a clear ruling on whether obesity is considered a disability that “substantially limits major life activities” and requires the employer to make accommodations either in the hiring process or during employment.

In the Oregon Supreme Court case, an employee suffered from a psychological condition but engaged in serious threats of violence or harm to co-workers.  The Oregon Supreme Court held the employee was not able to perform an essential function of his job and therefore was not a qualified individual under the ADA.  The essential function of the job was the ability to function in a cooperative work environment.  The Supreme Court also held that mere expressions of frustration or inappropriate jokes would not rise to the level of an inability to perform essentials of the job but this case showed that a person who engaged in serious conduct threatening other employees would not be considered a protected employee under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

These cases show the difficulty in determining whether or not someone is disabled or protected from disability discrimination.  Employers must be careful to avoid a perception that they believe someone is disabled or suffering from a condition that negatively impacts their ability to perform the duties of their position.