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Employment Blog

Recent Disability Discrimination Cases Outline Employer Responsibilities

Two recent decisions regarding disability discrimination have outlined an employer’s responsibilities when dealing with a potential claim of disability and need for accommodation.  These decisions offer reminders for employers of the importance of recognizing potential disability claims and addressing them promptly.

In the first decision, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that an employee had made an implied request for an accommodation even though the employee did not specifically state that she was requesting an accommodation because of her medical condition involving weakness in her back.  The employer required this employee, along with many others, to undergo testing both for competence and physical ability to perform their duties and the employee responded with a medical certification from her physician indicating she was not able to perform the agility testing and needed four months of physical therapy before being able to perform the physical agility test.  The employer terminated the employee because of the inability to show that she was able to perform the various duties of her position and did not acknowledge or address the doctor’s note indicating the need for additional time.  The Court of Appeals concluded that the submittal of the doctor’s note was an implied request for an accommodation (of four more months of physical therapy) and that the employer did not reasonably accommodate this implied request for an accommodation.  Employers are reminded that these types of doctors’ notes will likely be considered a request for an accommodation that must be reviewed and analyzed by the employer to determine whether the accommodation request is reasonable and appropriate.

In a second decision, the highest Court of the land, the U.S. Supreme Court, refused to consider a ruling by the same Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals which held that an applicant for a position did not have either actual or “regarded as” disability based upon obesity.  A conditional offer of employment was rescinded after the employee failed a pre-employment physical because the employee suffered from Class 3 obesity and therefore was considered not qualified for the position.  The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the applicant did not suffer from a physical impairment that was caused by an underlying psychological disorder or condition and therefore the obesity condition of the applicant did not rise to the level of a disability.  The Eighth Circuit also concluded that the applicant was not “regarded as” being disabled because the Americans with Disabilities Act did not support a claim of disability discrimination based upon a perception that a physical condition would be defined as a disability.  Other Circuit Courts have found that obesity is a disabling condition because the employer has assumed that the employee is not able to perform the duties of the position due to the obesity diagnosis.  The United States Supreme Court did not take this case which thereby supported the ruling from the Eighth Circuit that a perceived disability based upon a physical characteristic did not rise to a protected condition.  The case law for now is settled that gross obesity does not automatically constitute a disabling condition but employers must be careful how they view the medical condition of an applicant to avoid potential liability for discrimination claims.

The area of disability discrimination continues to be in a state of flux as courts throughout the country take differing views of what constitutes a disabling condition and whether the employee is protected under the ADA.