When an employee requests an accommodation or asserts a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer’s second question—right after “Are we even covered by the ADA?”—will likely be: “Did/does the employee have a disability?” (Claims from employees who are merely perceived as disabled are a topic for another day.) The definition of a disability has two parts. First, it must be “a physical or mental impairment” and, second, it must “substantially limit one or more major life activities.” In a recent decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that an employee who allegedly suffered stress and incapacitating migraines from working under his supervisors did not have a disability under the ADA because there was no substantial limitation on a major life activity.
In Woolf v. Strada, plaintiff Woolf provided medical documentation from a treating neurologist indicating that the “emotional stress at work” was the “primary trigger” for Woolf’s migraines and that, absent a change in the work environment, the stress would increase his risk of heart attack and stroke. Woolf repeatedly requested transfers within the company, including to the same position in a different location or under different supervisors. Those requests were denied and he was instead granted intermittent medical leave with full pay as an accommodation. Still, Woolf’s performance declined due to the migraines and he was ultimately terminated.
When Woolf subsequently sued under the ADA and state law, alleging failure to accommodate and discriminatory termination, the key issue was whether the migraines substantially limited the major life activity of working. The appeals court answered in the negative because Woolf’s work was only limited in his specific job under his specific supervisors. The court relied on
the well-established understanding that an employee’s inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working. This long-standing, common-sense principle of law recognizes that employees who are precluded only from doing their specific job, or from working under a specific supervisor, do not have a “disability.” Rather, an employee alleging a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working must show that the limitation affects the ability to “perform a class . . . or broad range of jobs.”
Employers considering accommodation requests under the ADA should thus examine how narrow an employee’s alleged limitation is before determining whether the employee indeed has a disability. But bear in mind two points. First, a disability need only substantially limit one major life activity. There may be other activities—walking, breathing, learning, etc.—that are substantially limited even if the impairment falls short in limiting working. Second, as always, state and local laws may be broader than the ADA in their definition of disability or otherwise.