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6th Cir. Weighs Broader Disability Definition of ADA Amendments

Jan. 28, 2020, 11:15 AM

The Sixth Circuit will hear oral argument over whether a federal judge improperly threw out a former scrap yard worker’s disability bias lawsuit based on outdated legal standards that Congress amended more than a decade ago.

Jacqueline Harrison, with the backing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, challenged a lower court ruling that her knee injury didn’t qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Harrison sued Parts Galore and its corporate parent, Soave Enterprises, for allegedly failing to accommodate her injury and then firing her because of it. The companies argue that the district court was correct to toss her lawsuit.

The case highlights what legal scholars say is a widespread problem of the federal bench ignoring the impact of the ADA Amendments Act, a 2008 measure that broadened the class of people who qualify for legal protection based on their disabilities. Despite Congress expressly responding to rulings that had narrowed the definition of disability under the ADA, courts have misstated the law and wrongly applied pre-amendment precedent that is too narrow and no longer valid, scholars say.

Courts cited outdated precedent or the wrong law in approximately 13 percent of cases that addressed the definition of disability from the start of 2014 to the end of 2018, according to Nicole Buonocore Porter, a law professor at the University of Toledo. Porter reviewed nearly 1,000 cases decided during that time period, finding that courts erroneously ruled workers didn’t have disabilities in 210 of them.

“The problem is when courts get the law wrong, then other courts are going to rely on that,” Porter said. “Regardless if plaintiffs win on the merits, getting the law wrong on the definition of disability ends up having an impact on future cases.”

‘Virus’ in the System

Misapplications of law have the potential to spread like a “terminal virus” in the body of ADA precedent because the U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to step in and overturn a vast majority of them, said Ann McGinley, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, law professor who’s written treatises on disability law.

Possible drivers for these mistakes included heavy judicial caseloads, poor legal research by clerks, and bad lawyering, scholars said.

Christopher Knauf, litigation director for the nonprofit Disability Rights Legal Center, said he and his colleagues have had firsthand experience with the errors that academics have identified.

“Sometimes judges get it right, sometimes they get it wrong,” Knauf said. “Sometimes it appears to us that judges are ignoring the clear text of the law.”

But Joseph Lynett, an attorney for the management-side firm Jackson Lewis, said he hasn’t encountered such judicial error on the definition of disability.

Judges apply the broader standard from the amended ADA to determine whether a worker is protected, Lynett said.

The ADA defines a disability as an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The 2008 amendments didn’t change that definition, but expanded what can be a major life activity and clarified what’s meant by substantially limiting. The amendments also reworked the law for employees who are “regarded as” having a disability by their employers.

Sixth Circuit Ruling Challenged

In the case slated for oral argument Jan. 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit will reconsider a federal judge’s ruling that Harrison’s knee injury wasn’t a disability. Harrison sued Parts Galore, where she worked, as well as that company’s corporate parent under the ADA. She said she was covered by the law because her knee injury was an actual disability and her former employer regarded her as disabled.

U.S. District Judge Linda Parker, an Obama appointee to the Eastern District of Michigan, threw out Harrison’s lawsuit last January.

Harrison failed to establish she had an actual disability, Parker ruled. The judge cited the Sixth Circuit’s 2002 decision in Black v. Roadway Express, which said a jury wouldn’t find that a knee injury substantially limits any major life activity.

Parker also rejected Harrison’s regarded-as claim. Harrison failed to show that her employer mistakenly believed she had an impairment that limited a major life activity, Parker said.

But Parker applied the wrong standards for both the actual and regarded-as claims, Harrison and the EEOC argued in their briefs.

Parker incorrectly relied on the Black ruling to rebuff Harrison’s assertion that her knee injury constituted a disability, the challengers said. Black was heavily based on pre-2008 amendment standards for major life activity and substantial limit under the ADA, including the test the U.S. Supreme Court applied in its 2002 ruling in Toyota v. Williams, which Congress specifically rejected, they said.

In addition, Parker erroneously applied the standard for the regarded-as claim derived from the high court’s 1999 decision in Sutton v. United Air, which was expressly discarded in the ADA amendments, Harrison and the EEOC said. Post-2008, workers have to show that employers took action against them because of an actual or perceived impairment, they said.

Supporting Decision, Criticizing Lawsuit

Soave Enterprises and Parts Galore defended parts of Parker’s ruling, but also pointed out other problems with Harrison’s lawsuit.

“Even if the district court erred in its ADA analysis (which it did not), Harrison sued the wrong entities, and failed to exhaust administrative remedies against them,” the companies said in their brief.

Harrison was originally hired by Soave subsidiary Ferrous Processing and Trading Co. to work at Parts Galore. Parker wrongly ruled that Soave was so intertwined with Ferrous that it was her employer, the companies said. Moreover, Harrison filed administrative charges against Ferrous, which means she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies against Soave and Parts Galore before suing, they said.

Nevertheless, Parker’s ADA analysis was correct, the companies said. The Black decision is valid precedent to support the notion that Harrison didn’t show that her knee condition substantially limited any major life activity, the companies said. Harrison didn’t show she had a substantial limitation as required by the ADA both before and after its amendment, they said.

For regarded-as claims, the Sixth Circuit’s jurisprudence draws a distinction between an employer merely knowing about a worker’s health condition and the heightened evidence necessary to prove it regarded the worker as impaired, the companies said. Parts Galore couldn’t have known of any alleged limitation caused by Harrison’s knee injury because she maintained it didn’t impact her ability to perform her job, they said.

Attorneys for Harrison and the companies didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The case is Harrison v. Soave Enterprises, 6th Cir., No. 17-1176, Oral argument 1/28/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Iafolla in Washington at riafolla@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

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