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Oct 23, 2014

By Eric B. Meyer

Let’s talk about what it means to have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act.

In Wilson v. Iron Tiger Logistics, the plaintiff, a truck driver, developed frostbite on a bunch of fingers while performing maintenance on his truck in Canada in -25 degree weather.

That’s dedication to your work! Although, speaking of dedication and cold weather, I think of those smokers who stand 21 feet away from our office in the dead of winter — not -25 degrees, but still pretty frickin’ cold — holding that cigarette to their lips. Now, that is some serious dedication.

Plaintiff not “substantially limited”

Now, let me finish this post.

So, our frostbitten plaintiff gets fired for refusing another dispatch to Canada. (In the interim, plaintiff’s employer offered plaintiff winter gloves while delivering loads, to take longer while delivering loads, and to warm up his hands in the cab of his truck or the customers’ facilities while delivering loads).

After the firing, the plaintiff brings an ADAAA claim, which, in this opinion, the Court acknowledges sets the bar awfully low for what conditions constitute a “disability” under the law. However, in this particular case, the court concluded that the plaintiff had not presented enough evidence that he was substantially limited in his ability to perform a major life activity:

The only major life activity plaintiff can point to as being affected by his frostbite is the ability to work. …The only restrictions are for cold weather climates in the winter. … Dr. Jennings did not state that plaintiff should be permanently restricted from exposure to cold temperatures, but rather that plaintiff needs to avoid any prolonged exposure to cold and that he must be able to wear gloves and warm up his fingers if he feels any pain in the fingertips.

Because the Court finds that plaintiff has not produced any evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that plaintiffs impairment substantially limits a major life activity the plaintiff has failed to establish that he is disabled under the first prong for qualifying as disabled under the ADA and ADAAA

Did the Court miss on this one?

I think the court got this wrong.

As discussed before here, to qualify as a “disability,” the condition at issue does not need to be permanent. EEOC Guidance on this issue further underscores that even impairments lasting less than six months can qualify as a disability.

That this dude had frostbite, worked in the cold, and had a doctor saying that he should avoid prolonged exposure to cold, suggests to me that he was substantially limited in working this particular job, which in his world, is a major life activity.

But, who am I to judge a judge? I’m probably wrong. Yet, if I am wrong, just remember that, generally, it’s easy to establish an ADA disability.

In your workplace, when an employee who claims to have a disability seeks a workplace accommodation, you have the right to vet whether the employee has a disability. But, I’d focus more on the accommodation.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.