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HR Focus: "Funny Walk" Is a Disability? That's Just Screwy

I know that the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADAAA) were intended to expand coverage of the Act, but sometimes I think the extent of the expansion is just ridiculous. This was highlighted for me in a recent case, EEOC v. Staffmark Investment LLC, in which the court found that an employee was covered by the ADAAA because a supervisor thought she had a "funny walk." Seriously?

This case involved an employee with a temporary staffing agency, Staffmark, who was placed at a company that did work for Sony Electronics. Her job was to check for loose screws on television sets. (No, really. I am not kidding.) According to Sony, she was supposed to walk around the table on which the tv set was placed, loosening and then tightening all the screws to make sure the screws were tight. On her first day of work, a supervisor had to counsel her twice about the proper way to check the screws. (I know - how hard could this really be?) One supervisor noticed she had difficulty walking, and another thought she had a "funny walk," but neither of them thought it affected her ability to do the job. No one knew that she was an amputee with a prosthetic leg - she wore long pants and did not use a cane. The following day, Sony decided to remove her from the project. According to Staffmark, Sony was afraid she would be knocked down, and she was sent home at Sony's request "due to her limping."

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Staffmark and Sony for disability discrimination on behalf of the employee. Staffmark settled. Sony filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to dismiss the claims against it because, Sony argued, the employee was not disabled within the meaning of the ADAAA. Under the ADAAA, an employee is "disabled" if: (1) she has a current physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; (2) she has a "record of" such an impairment; or (3) she is "regarded as" having such an impairment. This last category was the one at issue, and Sony argued that it could not have regarded her as having an impairment because it did not know that she actually had an amputated leg. Therefore, if it didn't regard her as having a substantially limiting impairment, she wasn't disabled under the ADAAA. Well that seems to make sense, doesn't it?

The court, however, rejected Sony's argument. Prior to the amendments to the ADAAA, the employer had to regard the employee as being substantially limited in a major life activity in order to trigger the "regarded as" prong of the disability definition. But now, as the court said, "Under the ADAAA, an individual need not prove that the employer had knowledge of an actual disability if she can demonstrate that she was subjected to a prohibited adverse employment because she was 'regarded as' having an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment, whether or not that impairment substantially limits or is perceived to limit, a major life activity."

The court's ruling simply follows the same position taken by the EEOC in its regulations implementing the ADAAA. In this case, the employee did actually have a disability, but the court's (and presumably the EEOC's) reasoning would still apply even if she didn't, and she just had a peculiar gait. In other words, the employer doesn't have to think an employee has a substantially limiting impairment to trigger the "regarded as" definition. Any impairment will do. At all. Even something minor. Even if no major life activity is affected.

So who has a screw loose? The court, EEOC, or Congress? Regardless, the employer is, well, screwed.

This HR Focus article was prepared by Fiona W. Ong of Shawe Rosenthal LLP, a member of the Worklaw® Network, which first appeared in The Labor & Employment Report on September 17, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

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