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Disability discrimination law in Ohio a mess that needs cleaning up

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

It is illegal in Ohio for an employer to discriminate because of the em­­­ployee’s disability. But it’s not always easy to figure out who this proscription covers, because Ohio’s statute (R.C. 4112) and the federal statute (the ADA) have their own respective definitions of “disability,” which vary slightly:

Ohio law: “‘Disability’ means a phy­­sical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including the functions of caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working; a record of a physical or mental im­­pair­­ment; or being regarded as having a physical or mental impairment.”

Federal law: “The term ‘disability’ means, with respect to an individual—(A) a phy­­sical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.”

Pre-and post-ADAAA

Before the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) took effect in 2009, there was another key difference between the two disability definitions. To be “regarded as” disabled under Ohio law, one has to be “regarded as having a physical or mental impairment.” Under the original ADA (before the ADAAA was enacted) to be “regarded as” disabled, one had to be perceived as having an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Thus, the federal definition was more restrictive.

New alignment

Despite those differences, Ohio law has almost always looked to federal law in interpreting its state disability discrimination statute. Last year, how­­ever, the rules changed. In Scalia v. Aldi, Inc. (No. 25436, Ohio Court of Appeals, 9th Judicial Dist., 2011), an Ohio appeals court said the following:

“Because the plain language of the definition of disability contained in R.C. 4112.01 differs in substance from the ADA, it is not appropriate to look to federal materials interpreting the pre-2008 ADA with respect to perceived disability claims under Ohio law.”

The key language in that quote is “pre-2008 ADA.” The ADAAA amended the definition of “regarded as” disabled, making it irrelevant whether the actual or perceived phy­­sical or mental condition substantially limits a major life activity:

An individual meets the requirement of “being regarded as having such an impairment” if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.

Thus, Ohio law and federal law now match on this issue. Because Aldi addressed discrimination that occurred pre-ADAAA, the court applied the pre-amendment version of the statute, and left open the question of whether Ohio courts should look to federal case law interpreting the amended federal statute.

What does all this mean for Ohio employers? Disability discrimination law is a mess.

Until the General Assembly passes legislation clarifying whether interpretations of “disability” under R.C. 4112 are supposed to mirror the ADA, Ohio employers should follow the most expansive interpretation of the definition of disability possible under either statute.

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