"Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 Does Not Apply Retroactively." Labor and Employment Client Alert. (August 2010)

In an opinion issued last week, the Eighth Circuit joined several other federal circuits in holding that the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 ("ADAAA") does not apply retroactively to Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA") claims filed before the ADAAA's effective date of January 1, 2009.  In stark contrast to the analysis that would most likely be applied post-ADAAA, the Court applied pre-ADAAA law regarding what constitutes a "disability" for purposes of an ADA claim and affirmed summary judgment for an employer after the plaintiff failed to prove that impairments caused by multiple sclerosis "substantially limit any major life activity."

In Nyrop v. Independent School District No. 11 , the plaintiff was a former music school teacher who claimed that her employer violated the ADA and other anti-discrimination laws when it failed to reasonably accommodate her disability, refused to hire her for an administrative position because of her disability, and retaliated against her for filing a charge of discrimination.  In attempting to prove that she had a disability, Nyrop claimed that her multiple sclerosis caused her to experience transient symptoms of a "charley horse" in her tongue, a tremor in her voice, difficulty projecting her voice, sensory capacity impairment, eye pain and pain across her forehead.  In addition, she claimed that her multiple sclerosis caused her continued fatigue and heat sensitivity.  Nyrop alleged that these impairments substantially limited her activities in that they prevented her from singing, speaking clearly, projecting her voice, and going on a Caribbean cruise.  She also claimed that the symptoms impaired her feeling and sensation, muscle control, strength and ability to swallow.  Nyrop also claimed she had difficulty lifting fifteen to twenty pounds. 

On the primary point on appeal, the Eighth Circuit considered whether the district court properly granted summary judgment for the school district on Nyrop's discrimination claim when it held that the plaintiff failed to prove that her physical impairment substantially limited a major life activity.  Accepting all of Nyrop's claimed impairments as true, the Court held that none of the impairments substantially limited her in any major life activity.  The Court pointed out that Nyrop's sensitivity to heat could be regulated with air conditioning and other tools, and none of her other symptoms "impair[ed] her ability to care for herself" or to perform a job other than teaching music.  Also, the Court noted, Nyrop admitted that many of her symptoms are transient.  Therefore, because she failed to prove that her multiple sclerosis symptoms substantially impaired a major life activity, her ADA claims failed as a matter of law.

While Nyrop's claims failed under a pre-ADAAA analysis, it is highly unlikely that the Court would come to the same conclusion applying the ADAAA.  A primary purpose of enacting the ADAAA was to ensure that the "definition of disability [is] construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA" and to prevent an extensive analysis of whether an individual actually suffers from a disability.  (See "EEOC Notice Concerning the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008," available at http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/adaaa_notice.cfm.) 

Thus, while on its face Nyrop is good precedent for employers, it should also serve as a reminder of the significant shift in disabilities law as a result of the ADAAA.  The ADAAA expanded the list of "major life activities" to include activities such as reading and communicating, and to include "major bodily functions" such as "functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions."  (See EEOC Notice.)  Therefore, under the ADAAA, an employee may very well be considered to have a disability if, for example, using the facts in Nyrop, the employee has problems communicating or has an impairment that substantially limits his or her neurological functions.  Also, the ADAAA clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is nonetheless a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when it is active.  Under this definition, the fact that Nyrop's impairments were transient would have little to no bearing on the Court's analysis.

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