True ‘disability’ limits employees’ life activities, not just job tasks

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

After less than a month on the job, Mark Mack was put on leave when an injury prevented him from lifting and kneeling, both of which were required for his job building trailers. His physician said he could return to work if he stayed away from the lifting.

The company told Mack it had no jobs for people with lifting restrictions, so it let him go. He sued, alleging protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because his lifting restriction substantially limited his major life activity.

A federal appeals court shot down his case, saying his injury wasn't pervasive enough to qualify as a disability. The court said a worker's inability to handle job-specific tasks doesn't necessarily make him disabled. Instead, an employee must show that the injury limits activities that are "of central importance to most people's daily lives." The U.S. Supreme Court set this higher standard in the important 2002 ruling, Toyota v. Williams.

Key point: Even though Mack claimed he was "regarded as disabled" by his employer, he still must meet the strict new definition of "disabled" established in the Toyota case. (Mack v. Great Dane Trailers, Nos. 01-2467, 01-2531, 7th Cir., 2002)

Advice: It may seem clear: Injuries and ailments that limit a "central function" of daily life will likely qualify as an ADA-protected disability, and conditions that limit just job duties won't qualify. But this interpretation is still being fleshed out in the courts and, until it is, you should be wary of drawing this fine line.

Example: Courts could infer a broader limit on a major life activity from what seems like a simple work restriction. For instance, a worker isn't able to hold a pencil. Seems like a job-related task problem, right? But a court could imply this also will prevent him from holding a toothbrush or otherwise take care of himself.

Your best bet: Look at each accommodation request on a case-by-case basis to determine who truly has an ADA-protected disability. You may have to delve a bit deeper into gauging a worker's off-the-job abilities before you deny a requested accommodation. When in doubt, try to accommodate; it's almost always cheaper than fighting it out in court.

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