Employees Regarded as Disabled Protected Under ADA

November 1, 2005 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that an employee "regarded as" disabled by an employer is entitled to the same protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as an employee with an actual disability.

In D’Angelo v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., No. 04-10629 (11th Cir. Aug. 30, 2005), the appellate court agreed with the district court that disability discrimination claims under the Florida Civil Rights Act are analyzed under the same framework as ADA claims, according to a report by t he Jackson Lewis Disability Management Practice Group (JLDMPG).

The employee in the case was diagnosed with vertigo, which did not impair her work abilities until she was assigned to a job monitoring a conveyor belt, according to JLDMPG.   When she informed her line leader that monitoring the belt was making her sick and dizzy and asked for a different work assignment, she was reassigned to make boxes.   Later, however, her supervisor instructed her to return to the conveyor belt.   When she explained the conveyor belt made her sick, the supervisor asked for documentation of her condition.

She presented a note from her doctor stating that she had a vertigo condition that affected her eyes when required to watch moving objects.   After receiving the note, the plant manager and human resource manager determined that no jobs existed that would not require the employee to look at and work around moving equipment such as conveyor belts.   Her employment was terminated.

The employee filed a lawsuit in federal district court claiming she was entitled to the reasonable accommodation of being exempt from working on the conveyer belts, and that her termination violated the ADA and parallel provisions of the Florida Civil Rights Act.   The suit alleged unlawful discrimination based on her actual disability caused by the condition of vertigo and the employer regarding her as disabled.   The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, dismissing both claims.

In its decision, the appellate court affirmed the summary judgment on the actual disability claim, but reversed the summary judgment on the “regarded as” claim.   The court found the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to create an issue of genuine fact as to whether the employer regarded her as disabled.  The supervisor, plant manager and human resource manager all believed the note from her doctor limited her, not only from working on the conveyor belt, but also from working around moving equipment. 

The 11 th Circuit appellate court found that a “review of the plain language of the ADA yields no statutory basis for distinguishing among individuals who are disabled in the actual-impairment sense and those who are disabled only in the regarded-as sense” and, consequently, “regarded-as disabled individuals also are entitled to reasonable accommodations under the ADA.”