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Know Minnesota’s disability law: State statute has lower threshold than federal ADA

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Under the ADA, employees who claim to be disabled must show that their condition substantially im­­­pairs a major life function. Min­ne­sota has its own version of the law. It requires that employees show their condition materially impairs a major life function.

That’s a lower standard, but still a tough one for employees to prove. And that’s good news for employers trying to determine if an employee is disabled and entitled to reasonable accommodations.

Recent case: Sean Coddens worked in the IT department at SuperValu, developing online instructional tools to train other SuperValu employees. When the IT work group was relocated to another area in the office, Coddens asked to remain behind in order to work in peace and quiet.

His request was turned down, although his supervisor did tell him he could reserve a conference room when needed or could sometimes work from home if he really had trou­ble concentrating. His request for higher cubicle walls was also re­­jected because only managers were allowed higher walls. Coddens would later claim his supervisor constantly ha­­rangued him about his work.

Coddens was eventually diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and anxiety disorder. He did not re­­quest any accommodations or provide any medical reports.

Shortly after, he was placed on a performance improvement plan. When he didn’t make progress, he was terminated.

Coddens sued, alleging disability discrimination under Minnesota state law.

SuperValu said he wasn’t disabled because he wasn’t materially im­­paired in any major life function—and certainly not work. His work history showed he could hold professional jobs, even if he sometimes didn’t perform well. Plus, after being terminated Coddens took a job with a delivery service and earned a spot in its management training program.

The court agreed Coddens wasn’t disabled, even though he had ADD and anxiety. He was unable to point to anything at work or in his life that set him apart from other, presumably nondisabled, individuals other than poor performance that he couldn’t tie to his psychological problems. (Coddens v. SuperValu, No. A11-837, Court of Appeals of Minnesota, 2012)

Final note: It is possible that some employees with ADD and anxiety ­dis­­order qualify as disabled. That determination must be made on an in­­dividual basis, considering the specific limitations an employee experiences. He or she has to show a material effect on a major life function like working, taking care of oneself, etc.

Coddens failed in part because he didn’t tie his disorder to either taking care of himself or to his performance difficulties. It’s possible that ADD affected his concentration so much that he couldn’t perform as well as his employer wanted. If that were the case, an accommodation might have been possible, including some of the suggestions his supervisor made before he was even diagnosed. But he didn’t ask for assistance after the diagnosis.

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