While the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA) aim to ensure that disabled people are given adequate accommodations for their disability, both statutes only protect persons who are, or are perceived as, “disabled” as defined under the ADA. Some terminated employees have sued their former employers under the ADA and FCRA claiming discrimination because related to a medical issue or need. Yet, some of these lawsuits are meritless. Merely because a person is affected by a medical condition does not mean that the person is protected under these statutes. Instead, to be protected as disabled, an employee’s condition must limit a major life activity. Employers have prevailed in cases where the alleged medical condition is not a disability under the ADA or FCRA. Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale employment attorney who defends businesses and their owners in labor and employment litigation, including claims alleging discrimination, retaliation, and unpaid wages. The Mavrick Law Firm also defends the interests of employers in Miami and Palm Beach.
Employees who are not disabled sometimes claim that their medical conditions qualify them for protection under the ADA or FCRA. These employees can claim that they were discriminated against because of their medical condition or claim that their employer was not sufficiently accommodating concerning their condition. A Florida employer can prevail in these types of cases by showing that the employee is not a “qualified person,” as that legal term is defined under the ADA or FCRA. An employee is a “qualified person” to bring a complaint under the ADA or FCRA only if he or she has a disability that limits his or her “major life activities.”
“[T]he mere existence of a physical impairment does not constitute a disability under the ADA; the impairment must substantially limit a major life activity.” Standard v. A.B.E.L. Services, Inc., 161 F.3d 1318 (11th Cir. 1998). “Major life activities are enumerated by EEOC regulation as ‘functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.’” Chenoweth v. Hillsborough County, 250 F.3d 1328 (11th Cir. 2001), quoting 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i); see also 42 U.S.C. § 12102 (describing similar wording in the ADA statute).
“For there to be a disability within the meaning of the ADA, there must be a substantial limitation on a major life activity; a ‘disabled’ person must be completely unable to perform the activity, or significantly restricted in performing the activity as compared to an average person […]. An impairment’s minor interference in major life activities does not qualify as a disability.” Wimberly v. Sec. Tech. Group, Inc., 866 So. 2d 146 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004).
Even potentially fatal medical conditions do not necessarily qualify as disabilities under the ADA or FCRA. This is illustrated when considering the condition of diabetes. Diabetes is clearly a significant medical condition which can dramatically affect a person’s life. While diabetes can lead to a disabling condition such as blindness or a loss of mobility, it is not itself a “disability” as this legal term is understood by the courts. “[D]iabetic status, per se, is not sufficient to qualify as a disability under the ADA.” Nawrot v. CPC Intern., 277 F.3d 896 (7th Cir. 2002); see Orr v. Wal–Mart Stores, Inc., 297 F.3d 720 (8th Cir.2002) (“[A] diabetic is not per se disabled but must demonstrate his condition substantially limits one or more major life activities”) see also Gonzalez v. Sears Holding Co., 980 F. Supp. 2d 170 (D.P.R. 2013) (Finding that a diabetic plaintiff failed “to show a prima facie case of impairment under ADA, as she failed to show that she suffers from an impairment that substantially limits one major life activity”).
An employer can successfully defend against an employee’s claim that the employer failed to accommodate a disability by showing that the claimed medical condition is not a disability under the ADA or FCRA. By addressing this concern early in the lawsuit, an employer can avoid protracted litigation over a meritless claim.
Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale employment lawyer, and also defends employers in Miami and Palm Beach. This article does not serve as a substitute for legal advice tailored to a particular situation.