The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) made a number of significant changes to the definition of “disability.” Much of the change had to do with making it easier for an individual to establish that he or she has a disability within the meaning of the statute. As a result employers have been accepting many more medical conditions as a covered disability and moving directly to the analysis of potential accommodations. A recent decision by the U.S. District Court in Alabama reminded us that the analysis of an employer’s obligations under the ADA must start with determining the specific functional limitations of the applicant or employee.
In Feltman v. BNSF Railway Company (N.D. Ala Jan. 24, 2018) the Court concluded that an employee with a partially amputated foot was not disabled under the ADA (his toes and the adjoining area of his right foot were amputated). Mr. Feltman applied for a Conductor Trainee position and was given an offer conditioned on a pre-employment medical examination. During the medical examination his foot was not specifically evaluated nor did it present any obvious limitations. Following the medical examination the Company concluded that Mr. Feltman was medically qualified for the Conductor Trainee position. The employment documents Mr. Feltman was asked to complete included a disability self identification form. He completed it by explaining that “technically” he has a disability but at no time has it caused him to fail to do what he wanted to do. The Company re-opened his medical file and asked Mr. Feltman for additional information regarding any limitations he may have. He again responded that he had no limitations. Nevertheless the Company asked Mr. Feltman to see a foot specialist to confirm there would be no health or safety issues if he worked as a Conductor. Mr. Feltman refused to provide any additional medical information because, he claimed, he was fully capable of performing the job. The Company informed Mr. Feltman that without the information requested it would rescind his employment offer.
In dismissing Mr. Feltman’s claim that he was discriminated against on the basis of a disability, the Court concluded he did not demonstrate that his partially amputated right foot is an actual “disability” under the ADA because he did not show that the condition limits any of his major life activities. In fact he testified at his deposition that his condition did not limit his activities in any way, with or without the prosthesis he had available to him.
While missing limbs or partially missing limbs are often listed as an example of the type of condition that rises to the level of a disability, this case is a good reminder that examples are just that, and you must review the circumstances of each situation. A careful analysis of the employee’s specific functional limitations is necessary to determine if there is a disability that must be accommodated under the ADA.