Circuit Rejects “Categorical” Determination that Inability to Sit for Prolonged Periods is Not a “Disability” Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Second Circuit recently held, in Parada v. Banco Industrial De Venezuela (decided March 25, 2014), that “impairments that limit the ability to sit for long periods of time do not categorically fail to qualify as disabilities under” the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Plaintiff worked for the defendant in a “largely sedentary” position. About six months into her job, plaintiff had an accident which hurt her back “severely enough that she could no longer sit for long periods of time.” Defendant refused plaintiff’s request for an ergonomic chair, and fired her for job abandonment after denying her application for long-term disability benefits.

The district court dismissed plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim, reasoning that “[b]ecause, as a matter of law, an impairment which limits the ability to sit for long periods of time is not recognized as a substantial limitation, Parada is not disabled pursuant to the ADA.” 

The Second Circuit disagreed, criticizing the lower court’s over-broad interpretation on the Second Circuit’s decision in Colwell v. Suffolk County Police Department:

Some district courts have mistakenly interpreted Colwell as creating a per se rule that “the major life activity of sitting is substantially limited only if the plaintiff’s impairment precludes him from sitting at all, not if the plaintiff’s impairment merely makes it more difficult to sit.” … In fact, our holding in Colwell is much narrower: vague statements about a plaintiff’s difficulties with “prolonged” sitting, without more, will not suffice to support a finding of an ADA violation.

To read Colwell more broadly to state a categorical rule would conflict with our precedent in other ADA cases, in which we have rejected bright-line tests and instead emphasized the need for a fact-specific inquiry. Such a categorical approach also conflicts with the EEOC’s implementing regulations governing Parada’s claim, which emphasized that the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity involves several factors. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j) (1991). We certainly have never required that a plaintiff show that she is unable to sit at all. If a plaintiff offers evidence that she cannot sit for a prolonged period of time, she may well be disabled under the ADA, depending on her specific factual circumstances. Of course, we recognize that the inability to sit for even an abbreviated period of time …  is more likely to be a substantial limitation of a major life activity than is the inability to sit for prolonged periods; few people are able to sit for hours on end without genuine discomfort. (Emphasis added.)

In light of its clarification that “the inability to sit even for a prolonged period of time may be a disability depending on the totality of the circumstances”, the court vacated the district court’s judgment relating to plaintiff’s ADA discrimination claim and remanded to that court “to determine in the first instance if the record reflects a genuine dispute of fact as to whether Parada’s inability to sit for a prolonged period of time constitutes a substantial limitation of a major life activity.”

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