ADA disability claims require more than just a doctor’s note.
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ADA disability claims require more than just a doctor’s note.

The Americans with Disabilities Act: Defining a disability under ADA

An employee has a letter from his doctor stating that he’s mentally disabled. Surely a worker with such a document in hand qualifies as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, right?

Not so fast.

The American Disabilities Act defines a disability as an injury or illness that prevents a person from performing basic job functions.

Here’s a case where an employee claimed he was the victim of discrimination because of an Americans with Disabilities Act-protected disability – and he had a doctor’s note to prove he was disabled. The problem for him was that the facts didn’t quite fit the ADA’s definition of a disability. And the employer got off the hook.

Is it an ADA disability if he can’t concentrate?

James Whitlock worked in the parts-and-shipping department for a company that owned a chain of coin-operated laundry services.

After 19 years on the job, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He was prescribed the drug Ritalin to help him concentrate.

Also, to accommodate his impairment, a supervisor allowed him to put up partitions around his work space and to play a small radio at his desk. These accommodations enabled him to block out the distractions of the busy office and keep his attention on his work.

Unfortunately, a year after this arrangement was made, the parts-and-shipping department was reorganized and he was moved from one area of the building to another. In the new space, James’s fellow workers complained about his radio. Finally, his partitions were dismantled and he was told to shut off the radio.

How was his ability to work affected by his impairments? That was the key question.
In response to these changes, Whitlock took a short-term disability leave. When he returned to work six months later, he was permitted to put the partitions back up and to play his radio again. Also, he was permitted to work only four days a week with no overtime.

‘Totally disabled’ and asking for short-term disability leave

For the next six months, Whitlock continued to work at his job, but he called in sick frequently. Finally, he took a second short-term disability leave. Before he returned, his physician wrote a memo “To whom it may concern” in which he stated that he was “presently totally disabled” and that he had advised his patient not to return to work.

Instead of returning to work, he resigned from the company. Then he filed an ADA lawsuit against his former employer claiming disability discrimination.

Fortunately, the employer never had to defend it against the accusations. That’s because James had to prove he was disabled before he could argue that he’d been the victim of discrimination. And that was where he came up short.

Too general for the disability act?

After hearing his argument, the court said that he had offered no evidence that he was “substantially limited in the major life activity of working.” In fact under questioning Whitlock himself admitted that he was capable of working, that he’d learned to use his employer’s new computer system and that the employer had placed great trust in his abilities.

In weighing the evidence, the court determined that he didn’t have a disability as defined by the American Disabilities Act. Therefore, he hadn’t been the victim of discrimination under ADA law. All that was offered was a diagnosis and a doctor’s note of a very general nature. And that wasn’t enough under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Merely pointing out a diagnosis is inadequate for proving a disability. Neither the diagnosis of ADHD nor the doctor’s note documented precisely how the ability to work had been affected by his impairments. That’s what a court will consider – and it’s what employers should consider, too.

Cite: Whitlock v. Mac-Gray, Inc., U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit, No. 02-2568, 10/6/03.

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