What Has Happened Since the Passage of the ADA Amendments Act?

Posted on November 09, 2011 by Kimberly Lackey

Since the effective date of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) on January 1, 2009, we have been waiting to see how the courts will interpret this new law.  Over the last two years it appears that the courts are listening to Congress and interpreting the definition of disability broadly just as Congress originally intended.

In the several hundred cases that have cited the ADAAA since January 1, 2009 the vast majority of them deal with the question of whether the ADAAA is retroactive.  The court ruled in every case that since Congress did not specifically state that the ADAAA was retroactive, the Courts will not apply it retroactively to any case.  In addition to these cases there are several that analyze disability discrimination under the new law.  Overwhelmingly, plaintiffs have been deemed disabled and the analysis has proceeded to the actual alleged act of discrimination. 

In many cases the Court has made varying statements indicating that plaintiffs who are now deemed disabled probably would not have been prior to the passage of the ADAAA.  A prime example is the Gill case in which the plaintiff, who had monocular vision, was deemed substantially limited in the major life activities of seeing and working.  This directly contradicts the decision in Albertsons Inc. v. Kirkingburg, a Supreme Court decision in 1999 that ruled that the plaintiff in that case, who also had monocular vision, was not substantially limited in the major life activity of seeing.  This case was one of the cases associated with the Sutton trilogy that greatly narrowed the definition of disability.

In the Kirkingburg case the Court took into account the mitigating measures that allowed the plaintiff to compensate for his loss of vision in one eye, thus, concluded that he was not disabled.  However, since the passage of the ADAAA the courts can no longer consider the positive effects of mitigating measures when determing whether an individual is disabled.  This is one of the most important changes brought about by the ADAAA. 

There have been several other significant changes that have played out in the courts’ analysis of ADA cases.  For instance, the Court made it clear in the Cohen case that plaintiffs having an impairment for only a short period of time can still be considered disabled if that impairment substantially limits a major life activity.  The Carmona case stated that if an impairment is episodic in nature courts must consider the effects of the impairment when active.  This can have a great impact in cases where the plaintiff has an impairment such as diabetes, epilepsy, MS and depression to name a few.  The ADAAA has also added a list of impairments that will consistently rise to the level of a disability.  Furthermore, the new amendments include a more expansive list of major life activities with additions such as sleeping, thinking, reading, bending, communicating, interacting with others, reaching and sitting.  Former cases failed to determine thinking, communicating and interacting with others to be major life activities. 

Now that the courts are much more likely to identify someone with a disability based on the pleadings more and more courts are actually determining whether discrimination occurred.  It has taken a long time for courts to interpret the ADA in the way Congress originally intended when passing the ADA in 1990, but based on the cases from the last two years it looks like more plaintiffs will have their day in court.