By: Cary Schwimmer
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “disability” is a legal term, not a medical one. The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (also a person with a record of such an impairment, regarded as having such impairment, or associated with a person with a disability). The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently confirmed having an impairment without substantial limitation of a major life activity does not establish an ADA claim.
In Southall v. USF Holland, LLC, et al., Case No. 21-5265 (6th Cir. January 26, 2022), a big rig truck driver was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2013. When he thereafter struggled to get medical clearance to drive, his employer suspended him from driving. Southall had also been ticketed for driving while fatigued—he had driven his truck into a concrete barrier and fallen asleep while waiting for his truck to be loaded.
Southall sued his employer under the ADA, claiming disability discrimination and retaliation. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer and the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. Southalls’s problem was that he had admitted in his deposition that his sleep apnea did not affect any of his major life activities. This foreclosed his ADA claims because he was not “disabled” under the ADA.
When an employee reports to their employer that he or she has a disability, usually in the context of seeking a reasonable accommodation to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of their job, the employer is entitled to obtain the employee’s relevant medical records and ask the employee whether their condition affects one or more major life activities. Both factors are required to entitle an employee to an ADA reasonable accommodation or other ADA protection.
The EEOC’s regulations provide a non-exhaustive list of examples of major life activities: caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working.