ADA: Consider what’s a ‘major life activity’

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Employees who cannot drive a motor vehicle due to a physical or psychological reason don’t automatically qualify for ADA protection. That’s because driving is not a major life activity.

Therefore, an employee who claims that she panics when she has to get behind the wheel isn’t entitled to transfer to a nondriving position (or have company-provided transportation) as a reasonable accommodation.

Recent case:
Marsalette Winsley worked for the Cook County Department of Public Health and had to take time off for a hysterectomy and kidney surgery. When she returned to work, she was assigned as a family-care manager, a job that required her to drive to clients’ homes.

Then Winsley was involved in a car accident. Her psychiatrist said she then began having panic attacks and was unable to sleep well. The panic attacks became severe when she had to drive again. She told her supervisors she needed a reasonable accommodation, such as reassignment to a position that didn’t require driving.

The department refused, and she sued.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Winsley’s case. It said the inability to drive is not itself an impairment of a major life function. Millions of people don’t drive. The court also said where someone lives can dictate whether driving is a hardship, unlike any other essential life function. For example, being unable to see affects everyone with the condition regardless of location, while being unable to drive affects some much more than others. (Winsley v. Cook County, No.
08-2339, 7th Cir., 2009)

Final note: Winsley didn’t try to argue that her underlying condition (panic attacks) substantially impaired any other life functions. If she could have shown that panic attacks made it impossible to be around other people, she might have had a better argument. Always consider each case individually.

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