Professor Susan Carle of American University Law School thinks the “regarded as” prong of the ADA may be severely underutilized by plaintiffs seeking to challenge their termination. According to Carle, who delivered a lunch keynote address at the 2016 Colorado Bar CLE annual employment law conference, the ADAAA of 2009 amended the ADA in a way that greatly increased the potential effectiveness of the “regarded as” prong. The ADAAA, first, freed the “regarded as” prong of the requirement that the disability the employer regards an employee as having must significantly impair a major life activity. Employers now only have to “regard” an employee as having some impairment for the employee to be protected by the ADA. To balance this out, Carle emphasizes, the ADAAA did limit the “regarded as” prong a bit. So, the prong does not protect transitory or minor disabilities and the “regarded as” prong does not support requests for accommodation.
Professor Carle explains that it’s fairly clear now what is protected, but there’s a bit of ambiguity around how far the new protection goes. With respect to what is clear, if an employee has an injured back, but has a medical release to go back to work (can perform the essential functions of the job) and the employer says no, the employee is likely protected. Also, if an employee has an anxiety disorder and the employer finds the employee annoying (even though the employee can perform essential functions) and fires the employee, the employee is likely protected. Professor Carle, though, is interested in knowing whether the ADA might extend far enough to protect certain traits. For example, what if an employee has no diagnosed disability or has a disability that has not been disclosed to the employer? If the employer then looks at an employee “trait” that the employee possesses and “regards it as” a disability or impairment, is the employee protected by the ADA? For example, an employee suffers from depression and as a result fails to participate in workplace social gatherings or attends, but just sits in the corner. Is the employee protected from termination by the ADA “regarded as” prong?
Professor Carle believes that the ADA “regarded as” prong “can be of special help to persons with ambiguous or hidden impairments because it may very often be the very perception of ‘something weird/different/not right’ about the person that causes a negative reaction or discrimination rather than any limitation in relevant job-related abilities.” The big question is whether an employer who regards an employee as having a “social disorder” based on a trait is prohibited from acting on that trait in disciplining or terminating the employee? Does the trait have to be an effect of an actual disability or impairment? Professor Carle will attempt to make her case in an upcoming issue of the University of California Davis Law Review. Professor Carle’s argument does have some hope for unleashing the progressive potential of the ADA. After all, a foundational policy of the ADA is to have employers focus on the essential functions of the job in making employment decisions rather than indulging personal biases.