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Court Rules Cancer in Remission Is Disability under the ADAAA

September 10, 2010

A federal district court in Indiana recently ruled that a plaintiff's past diagnosis of renal cancer qualifies as a "disability" for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 ("ADAAA"). The court reached this conclusion even though the plaintiff's cancer was in remission and he had been working with no restrictions for over a year. This case is significant because it is one of the first to decide the extent to which the ADAAA broadens the scope of what conditions may constitute a "disability." Before the enactment of the ADAAA, a medical condition often did not qualify as a "disability" if it was in remission or was episodic in nature. Under the ADAAA, however, a condition that is in remission or episodic in nature may qualify as a disability if it "would substantially limit a major life activity when active." 42 U.S.C. § 12102(4)(D).

In Hoffman v. Carefirst of Fort Wayne Inc. d/b/a/ Advanced Healthcare, No. 1:09-cv-00251, 201 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90879 (N.D. Ind. Aug. 31, 2010), the plaintiff worked as a service technician supplying patients with home medical devices, such as oxygen tanks and wheelchairs. In November 2007, he was diagnosed with stage III renal cancer. He successfully battled the cancer and returned to work in January 2008. Upon his return, he worked a 40-hour work week and had no restrictions imposed by his doctor on his ability to work. Approximately a year after his return, the plaintiff's employer requested that he increase his working hours from 40 hours per week to between 65-70 hours per week to service a new contract the employer had just signed with a client.

The plaintiff responded by producing a note from his doctor. The note stated that the plaintiff's work week should be limited to 40 hours because of his past cancer. The plaintiff's supervisor initially responded that the plaintiff needed to work the overtime like other technicians on the contract or resign. The plaintiff replied that he would not resign but could not work the additional hours. Later that same day, the supervisor told the plaintiff he could continue to work a 40-hour week but would need to work out of the company's Fort Wayne, Indiana office. The plaintiff had been working at his home office, with the employer's consent, for some time. Working out of the Fort Wayne office would have required a two to three hour uncompensated commute each day for the plaintiff. The plaintiff rejected the employer's suggested accommodation and never returned to work. He also never consulted with his doctor regarding the possibility of working a 40-hour week in the Fort Wayne office.

The plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging the employer unlawfully discriminated against him based on his disability by terminating him, failing to accommodate his disability, and for additionally regarding the plaintiff as disabled. At the close of discovery, the employer filed a motion for summary judgment. The court denied the employer's motion. The court relied heavily on the fact that the employer failed to present any evidence that the plaintiff's requested accommodation - to continue working a 40-hour week out of his home office - would have presented an undue hardship for the company. Instead, the employer focused its briefs in support of its motion for summary judgment on whether the plaintiff qualified as "disabled." The employer gave comparatively short shrift to its efforts to accommodate the plaintiff's disability. The failure to engage in the interactive process and to demonstrate the undue burden caused by the requested accommodation was fatal to the employer's motion for summary judgment.

The court's decision in this case reinforces that employers must be mindful that under the ADAAA, many more conditions and impairments are now likely to be considered disabilities. Even those conditions or impairments that may have been dormant for some time may qualify as disabilities under the ADAAA. Employers will, therefore, need to be prepared to engage in the interactive process with employees requesting accommodations even where the employee's condition or impairment is not immediately obvious. Employers can and should still require sufficient medical documentation of the condition from employees, as needed, and should document completely the steps taken in the interactive process, including conversations with the employee regarding potential accommodations. Should an employer determine there is no reasonable accommodation or that the requested accommodation presents an undue burden, the employer should consult with legal counsel prior to taking any adverse action against the employee.

For more information, please contact the professionals listed below or your regular Crowell & Moring contact.

For more information, please contact the professional(s) listed below, or your regular Crowell & Moring contact.

Trina Fairley Barlow
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1.202.624.2830