The Sixth Circuit’s ruling in Tinsley v. Caterpillar Fin. Servs., Corp., No. 18-5303 (6th Cir. Mar. 20, 2019) is a good reminder that not all impairments rise to the level of a “disability” within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In addition to showing a physical or mental impairment, ADA plaintiffs also must show that the impairment “substantially limits one or more major life activities” to have a disability under the ADA.
Prior to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”), courts frequently dismissed ADA claims on summary judgment after concluding that the plaintiff failed to show that her impairment substantially limited a major life activity. The ADAAA, with a stated purpose of broadening the scope of protection available under the ADA, certainly has reduced the number of such holdings. But, as illustrated by the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Tinsley, while the ADAAA may have lowered the bar, a showing of substantial limitation in a major life activity is still required.
Tinsley worked for Caterpillar for 18 years. In 2013, she was given a new role working for a new supervisor. In 2015, Tinsley began complaining about her new role—focusing her complaints on her supervisor and the alleged hostile environment created by his management practices. At the recommendation of her doctor, Tinsley took medical leave from September to October 2015. In October 2015, she returned to work with a doctor’s note, which contained her PTSD diagnosis. The doctor’s note provided that she could return to work without restrictions, but recommended that she be moved to a different work environment under a different manager because of her PTSD. Instead of reassigning her to a different manager, the company approved her for additional medical leave.
After returning to work at the end of her approved leave, Tinsley requested additional medical leave and again requested a new supervisor. Caterpillar denied these requests. Tinsley resigned and filed suit alleging that Caterpillar violated the ADA by not providing her with a reasonable accommodation.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Caterpillar—ruling that Tinsley, despite her PTSD diagnosis, was not disabled for purposes of the ADA because she was not substantially limited in a major life activity. The only major life activity in which Tinsley argued she was substantially limited was the major life activity of “work.” The Sixth Circuit explained that “a plaintiff who asserts that her impairment substantially limits the major life activity of ‘working’ is . . . required to show that her impairment limits her ability to ‘perform a class of jobs or broad range of jobs.’” The Court held Tinsley failed to make this showing: “Although Tinsley has a disability—PTSD—she has not demonstrated that her disability ‘substantially limits’ her from ‘work,’ as that term is understood vis-à-vis the ADA.”
The ADAAA provides that prior to its passage, courts interpreted the terms “substantially limits” and “major life activity” too narrowly, and conveys that the “question of whether an individual’s impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis.” However, as exemplified by Tinsley and other post-ADAAA cases, instances remain where an impairment does not substantially limit a major life activity, and employers should be mindful of this when defending against ADA claims.