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In disability cases, facts are more important than labels



In an opinion released today this week, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the somewhat counter-intuitive finding of a District Court Judge in Minneapolis that a woman with multiple sclerosis is not actually disabled.  The case reminds us that despite the broad definition of “disability” found within the Americans with Disabilities Act, each of these cases turns on its own particular facts.

It was undisputed in this case that MS is a physical impairment. However, as court observed, in order to prove that she is disabled, a plaintiff cannot merely rely on her diagnosis but, instead, must show her MS substantially limits her in a “major life activity”.   The plaintiff in this case, an elementary school music teacher, claimed that she was substantially limited in control of her tongue and larynx, and that this condition impacted her ability to speak clearly, project her voice, and sing.  She explained her voice was sometimes reduced to a whisper or suddenly stopped, but she insisted, “I can always do a sound, if I put a little more breath in it.”  When asked whether she was prevented from doing anything other than teaching music, she declared she would not be able to go on a Caribbean cruise because of the heat and fatigue, and could not lift fifteen or twenty pounds. She also claimed that all she does is “sleep, eat and work.”

The Court concluded that none of the limitations claimed by plaintiff constituted substantial limitations.  For instance, while she had difficulty projecting her voice at times, she also acknowledged that she can always make a sound if she puts more breath into her speech. Similarly, she failed to explain how her sensitivity to heat over seventy degrees substantially limits a major life activity. While she complained of fatigue, sensory loss, and difficulty in chewing and swallowing, she made no claim that these conditions impair her ability to care for herself.  Finally, while plaintiff claimed she is no longer able to teach music, she has never suggested that she is completely unable to work, and, in fact, has continued working in a variety of positions.  

While the Court accepted as true plaintiff’s testimony regarding her MS-related impairments and physical symptoms, like the lower court it concluded that she nonetheless failed to demonstrate her physical impairments substantially limit any major life activity, and that therefore she does not have a disability as defined by the ADA.   The take-away from this case is that just because an employee has been diagnosed with a particular condition, the employer must still analyze how that condition limits the employee’s activities, and in particular his or her ability to perform the essential functions of her job.  In other words, it is critical to move beyond labels and consider the particulars of each situation.

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