In 2009, Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA), unquestionably expanding the definition of a disability under the ADA and, for all practical purposes in most cases, shifting the focus of disability lawsuits in federal court. Specifically, prior to the ADAAA’s enactment employers routinely argued that the plaintiff-employee’s ADA claim failed right out of the gate because he or she could not establish the existence of a disability. The ADAAA changed all of that, as through the amendments Congress made it clear that the initial hurdle of establishing a disability was no longer as onerous and that many medical conditions, such as cancer, should presumptively be treated as disabilities. As a result, since the ADAAA’s enactment courts now commonly gloss over the disability-establishment analysis of an ADA claim and proceed directly to whether there is evidence of discrimination or whether a reasonable accommodation existed.
Not so fast, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently reminded us. In Alston v. Park Pleasant, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 2668 (3rd Cir. Feb. 15, 2017), the plaintiff was diagnosed with breast cancer and less than a month later was discharged by her employer. The plaintiff subsequently filed suit alleging, among other things, that she was fired because of her asserted disability, cancer. The trial court dismissed all of her claims and she appealed. In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals “agree[d] that cancer can — and generally will — be a qualifying disability under the ADA.” However, the Court of Appeals cautioned, despite the more relaxed standard established by the amendments, the ADA still requires an individual assessment and further requires that a plaintiff demonstrate that one or more “major life activities” were substantially impaired by his or her alleged disability. In this case, neither the plaintiff nor her attorney had alleged that her cancer had limited any of her major life activities; on the contrary, they expressly asserted that her condition had not limited her in any way. As a result, her ADA claim was properly dismissed.
Does the Third Circuit’s ruling signal a return to what employers might now wistfully consider the “glory days” of the ADA? Unlikely. In most circumstances, an individual with a diagnosis of cancer, or another disease that reduces auto-immune function and or that involves abnormal cell growth, is likely to experience symptoms that will impact one or more major life activities. Still, when faced with, for example, a disability-based request for a reasonable accommodation, employers — preferably in consult with their employment counsel — should continue to perform a case-by-case assessment.