ADA Definition Clarified by Court

Under the federal disability law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), an employee is considered to be “disabled” within the protection of this law if the employee suffers a mental or physical impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities”.  This law applies to most employers with 15 or more employees.  Recent amendments to the ADA were intended to broaden the meaning of the term “disability” and, in turn, to extend the reach of the ADA to cover a larger proportion of the workforce.  Unfortunately, many of the difficult interpretive questions presented by this law remain unanswered.

Last week, a federal Court of Appeals found that a public health nurse who had attendance problems due to panic attacks which made her too anxious to drive, had no viable ADA claim.  In a Seventh Circuit decision (the court that governs in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin), entitled Winsley vs. Cook County Department of Public Health, the court found that that nurse could not bring an ADA claim because driving was not a “major life activity”.

In the Winsley case, the nurse worked in the field and was required to be able to drive two hours a day to her assignments.  Because of an automobile accident, the nurse had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.  Her doctor restricted her driving because she “would go into a full panic attack when she got into a car.”  When the employer failed to accommodate her driving restrictions, the nurse resigned, claiming that the employer had violated the ADA.

The Winsley court found that the “major life activities” identified by the federal agency charged with enforcing the law, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, have a number of things in common with each other that driving does not share with them.  “Most importantly, the listed activities are so important to everyday life that almost anyone would consider himself limited in a material way if he could not perform them.  This is not the case with driving.  In fact, many Americans choose not to drive and do not consider the quality of their lives to have been diminished by their choice.”  In ruling this way, the Seventh Circuit joined the Second Circuit which governs New York, Connecticut and Vermont, the Tenth Circuit which governs Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma and the Eleventh Circuit which governs Florida, Georgia and Alabama in ruling that driving is not a major life activity.

This decision is significant for employers in that it emphasizes the importance of carefully drafting job descriptions to define all essential functions of the job.  It also underscores the importance of analyzing all ADA or other disability type claims with the assistance of employment counsel since the law in this area remains, to say the least, extremely gray.

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