Friday, September 26, 2008

Employment attorneys applaud ADA Amendments Act

From the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA):

Great news for working Americans with disabilities and their lawyers: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has finally been amended to overturn restrictive Supreme Court rulings and restore the law's original promise to people with disabilities

The ADA Amendments Act (ADA-AA) of 2008 was signed into law in a White House ceremony Sept. 24, after identical bills were passed by the Senate (unanimously, on September 11th) and the House (by voice vote, on September 17th). The law's effective date is January 1, 2009.

NELA President Bruce Fredrickson applauded enactment of the ADA-AA, saying "No one knows better than NELA lawyers that many if not most disabled Americans were not protected from discrimination under the ADA as it was interpreted. The ADA Amendments Act is a long overdue response to that problem and will allow untold millions of employees to be judged by their abilities rather than their disabilities. Its passage is a victory for fair and equal treatment and a defeat for prejudice and ignorance."

The ADA-AA was Congress's response to the Supreme Court's stringent construction of the terms "disability" and "significantly limits a major life activity" in ways that have drastically restricted the class of workers who can rely on the ADA to secure equal employment opportunities.

For example, the ADA-AA will overrule the U.S. Supreme Court's 1999 decision in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., which required that "mitigating measures" like medication be taken into account when evaluating whether an individual has a "disability" within the meaning of the ADA - a decision that contravened appellate decisions nationwide, EEOC regulations, and the ADA's legislative history.

Specific language in the ADA-AA was the result of historic negotiations between the disability and civil rights communities, on the one hand, and the business community, on the other, working with the bill's chief proponents in Congress.

The ADA-AA significantly changes the current law by:
  • explicitly removing the Supreme Court's requirement in Sutton that mitigating measures be considered when evaluating whether an individual has a disability within the meaning of the ADA;
  • including language in the findings and purposes section to clarify that the courts' previous interpretations of the term "substantially limits" [in the phrase "substantially limits a major life activity"] were too restrictive;
  • defining "major life activity" to include "operation of a major bodily function" such as the neurological, circulatory, and reproductive systems (the provision contains a non-exhaustive list);
  • eliminating the requirement that an individual asserting a "regarded as" claim show that s/he has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity;
  • clarifying that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
  • directing the courts to interpret the ADA as a remedial statute, i.e., liberally;
  • and conforming the definition of "disability" under the federal Rehabilitation Act, which covers federal, state, and local government employees, to the ADA-AA.