Are All Migraine Headaches Protected as a ‘Disability’? — Business Management Daily: Free Reports on Human Resources, Employment Law, Office Management, Office Communication, Office Technology and Small Business Tax Business Management Daily
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Are All Migraine Headaches Protected as a ‘Disability’?

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in Case In Point

Do your employees ever give you a migraine headache? Don’t you wish every time they did you could claim protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and rush home? One court recently ruled that not every migraine headache is the same. Therefore, not every case is protected by the ADA. Sit down ... take off your sneakers ... and read this case.

Case in Point: Alethia Allen, a medical assistant for an Oklahoma’s physician group, suffered from migraine headaches several times a week. They started when she accepted the job and ended when she resigned. Allen's job involved checking in patients, taking their vital signs, calling in prescriptions, receiving and returning patient phone calls and removing sutures.

Allen requested job-protected time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for the headaches but was denied. She then resigned. She tried to rescind her resignation but the medical practice refused. Allen eventually sued, saying the company failed to accommodate her as required under the ADA. Allen argued she was protected under the ADA because she was “substantially limited in a major life activity”—the act of caring for herself.

The court rejected her argument, noting that, “A mere assertion that [Allen] took medication and slept after arriving home for an unspecified period when undergoing a migraine attack rather then caring for herself was insufficient to meet the ADA burden.”

The court wasn’t sold on Allen's evidence regarding her alleged limitations. It noted that she failed to provide details, such as how much earlier than usual she had to go to bed or exactly what self-care activities she had to forgo because of her sporadic impairment. (Allen v. SouthCrest Hosp., 10th Cir., No. 11-5016, unpublished opinion 12/21/11)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

1. Perform case-by-case reviews. Employers must look at each employee case separately because the facts can differ greatly even if the chief complaint is a migraine. Under some circumstances, migraines may affect a major life activity while in other cases, like this one, they did not.

2. Know ADA terms and definitions. The court relied on terms and definitions to decide this case. “[W]e conclude based on our existing case law, Supreme Court case law, the applicable statute, and the [EEOC] regulations, that to show a disability in the major life activity of working, Allen was required, even after the enactment of the [ADA Amendments Act] and the modified EEOC regulations, to demonstrate that she was substantially limited in performing a class of jobs or broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to most people with comparable training, skills, and abilities.”

3. Put all heads together. The ADA is a house of mirrors. To see which way to go, HR and legal professionals must work together.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

ML September 13, 2012 at 8:38 am

I work for a small company not large enough to be covered under FMLA and I have been suffering from debilitating migraines for several years now. I am fortunate to have an employer who is gracious and kind to allow me time off when one of these migraines hit (at their worst they hit multiple times per week). I was missing many hours of work per week last year and the year prior. I am now on my thrid neurologist and take ooodles of meds to try to keep them under control. I can’t tell you how many vacation hours I have used as sick time in the past. They have ruled out MS and several other diseases as the underlying causes, and base it on genetics – I have roughly 12 perscriptions to maintain a ‘normal’ lifestyle and will still get now 3-4 migraines a month – that’s down from 15+. One lasted over 17 days. And it took 5 different traetments to finally get rid of it – that’s when I changed docs. I just want to make the point that Migraines are very real; they can be VERY debilitating, they can affect EVERY asepect of your life – when I have a bad one – I cannot even perform simple math – like 2+3 – seriously – my mind cannot function, it will not think. It’s incapable. I put ice trays in cabinets. It’s crazy. Not all that claim migraines are trying to scam. They are very real. I’d like to return to school but due to all the meds I take, I’m in bed asleep by 8:30 and can’t attend night classes – my life revolves around migraines and their maintenace.


Kec December 22, 2011 at 6:56 pm

This case is a joke. The fact that she tried to claim her employer failed to provide protection under ADA because she had second thought about her resignation is a joke. I see too many issues like this where I work. Employees are not sick when they have the ability to make double time in overtime but conveniently get sick and use their intermittent FMLA around the weekends and holidays. Honestly I don’t think Bill saw this through when signed the FMLA law in 1993


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