Second Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Disability Discrimination Claim

In Woolf v. Strada, 2020 WL 573386 (2d Cir. Feb. 6, 2020), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended.

Specifically, the court addressed “whether Woolf’s inability to perform his particular job as a result of stress arising from the circumstances surrounding that job gives rise to an ADA-qualifying disability in light of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008” and concluded that the answer to this question is “no.”

The court summarized the legal framework:

To establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) his employer is subject to the ADA; (2) he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (3) he was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (4) he suffered adverse employment action because of his disability.15 Similarly, to establish a prima facie case for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, a plaintiff also must satisfy the first three factors, but for the fourth factor, he must show by a preponderance of the evidence that his employer refused to make a reasonable accommodation.The ADA defines “disability” to include, among other things, “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

Applying the law, the court explained:

Bloomberg does not dispute that Woolf’s serious migraine condition constitutes a “physical or mental impairment.”18 As a result, Woolf asks us to determine whether his migraine condition “substantially limit[ed] one or more major life activities,”19 such as seeing, speaking, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.20 As stated above, here we address only Woolf’s contention that his migraines substantially limited his major life activity of working.

Although Woolf’s migraines arguably affected his performance at work, Woolf’s own admissions make clear that the migraines were related to the stress caused by working under his direct supervisors.21 The record amply demonstrates that Woolf believed he could perform the same job if he were transferred to a different location or if he were managed by different supervisors.22

Woolf’s argument that his condition could be accommodated with a reassignment or transfer conflates two separate inquiries: on the one hand, whether the employee has a disability in the first instance and, on the other hand, whether the employee can perform the job with a reasonable accommodation. As the District Court correctly concluded, under this Court’s precedent, “where a plaintiff’s condition leaves him unable to perform only a single, specific job, ‘he has failed to establish a substantial impairment to his major life activity of working.’ ”23 That is this case.

Woolf has pointed out, however, that our precedential decisions on this issue, as well as most cases cited by the District Court, predate Congress’s 2008 amendments to the ADA. In those amendments, the ADAAA, Congress instructed courts that the “definition of disability … shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals,”24 and that an impairment that “substantially limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability.”25 The principal purpose of the ADAAA was to overrule the Supreme Court’s arguably narrow interpretation of what constitutes an ADA-qualifying disability set forth in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc.,26 and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams,27 and to make clear that the substantial-limitation requirement in the definition of “disability” is not an exacting one.28

*4 But nothing in the ADAAA’s text, or its legislative history for that matter, suggests that Congress intended to modify, let alone abandon altogether, the well-established understanding that an employee’s “inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.”29 This longstanding, common-sense principle of law recognizes that employees who are precluded only from doing their specific job, or from working under a specific supervisor, do not have a “disability.” Rather, an employee alleging a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working must show that the limitation affects the ability to “perform a class … or broad range of jobs.”30

Had Congress intended to change this fundamental principle of law in the ADA’s regulatory scheme, Congress could have done so. Indeed, Congress “does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”31 We decline to read a limitation into the statute that was so clearly not enacted by Congress.32

Even after the ADAAA’s enactment in 2008, we have continued to hold, in non-precedential summary orders, that an impairment does not rise to the level of a “disability” if it only impairs the employee’s ability to perform his or her current job.33 District courts in this Circuit have followed suit,34 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s most recent interpretive guidance on this subject has reinforced that ongoing understanding of the ADA’s definition of disability.35 Finally, every Circuit that has addressed this question in the aftermath of the ADAAA also has held that Congress’s amendments did not change the fact that “a plaintiff alleging a work-related disability must show that his condition precludes him from working in a class or broad range of jobs.”36

Accordingly, we join our sister Circuits in holding that the ADAAA did not alter or erode our well-settled understanding that the inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working. As relevant here, because Woolf does not attempt to show that his work-induced impairment substantially limited his ability to work in a class or broad range of jobs, no reasonable factfinder could conclude that Woolf has a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA.