A recent decision from a district court in Indiana holding that cancer in remission is a protected disability regardless of whether it currently limits a major life activity serves as a valuable harbinger of how courts will likely interpret the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act's (ADAAA) disability standard. [Hoffman v. Carefirst of Fort Wayne, Inc. d/b/a Advanced Healthcare, No. 1:09-CV-251 (N.D. Ind. Aug. 31, 2010).]
The plaintiff in Hoffman was diagnosed with renal cancer in November 2007 and, after time off for surgery and recovery, returned to work without restriction in January 2008. One year later, while his cancer was in remission, Hoffman requested an accommodation to his work schedule when his employer informed him that all employees in his position would be required to work mandatory overtime. The company agreed to limit Hoffman's workweek to 40 hours, but required him to work out of an office that would add two to three hours of travel per day. Hoffman ultimately sued his employer for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended by the ADAAA, alleging the company improperly terminated his employment without offering a reasonable accommodation.
Perhaps the first disability discrimination case based on facts arising after the ADAAA took effect in January 2009 to reach the summary judgment stage, Hoffman forced the district court to interpret the ADAAA's relaxed definition of disability. Though the ADAAA does not change the ADA's basic definition of disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, it provides that the definition "shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals... to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the [ADA]."
Relying on the ADAAA, the district court rejected the company's argument that Hoffman's cancer, which was in remission, did not constitute a disability because there was no substantial limitation on a major life activity in January 2009. The ADAAA makes clear, the court said, that "[a]n impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active." Hoffman's condition constitutes a disability, the court concluded, because renal cancer would have substantially limited a major life activity when active.
Before the 2009 amendments, much of the litigation in ADA cases involved questions about whether the plaintiff was disabled, with cases frequently dismissed in the employer's favor on summary judgment due to stringent interpretations of the ADA's definition of disability. As a result of the ADAAA, plaintiffs are more likely to clear the disability hurdle, and we can expect to see more litigation focused on complex ADA issues regarding reasonable accommodations and undue hardship.
Vincent A. Cino is a partner in the Morristown, N.J., office of Jackson Lewis LLP. He is the firm's National Director of Litigation.