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Fifth Circuit Clarifies Plaintiff's Burden under the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act

In 2008, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), expanding the definition and the scope of the term "disability" under the ADA.  Courts are now required to construe the term "disability" broadly and to provide coverage to the maximum extent possible under the ADA.  Additionally, the ADA Amendment Act of 2008 ("ADAAA") states, "The question of whether an individual meets the definition of disability under this part should not demand extensive analysis." Consequently, a plaintiff's burden in proving a disability is much lower, thereby improving a plaintiff's chances of getting past an employer's dispositive motion on this issue.

Although this was seemingly troubling news for employers defending against ADA suits, the Fifth Circuit recently clarified that plaintiffs must still establish the existence of a disability in order to successfully assert an ADA claim:

Although the text of the ADAAA expresses Congress's intention to broaden the definition and coverage of the term "disability," it in no way eliminated the term from the ADA or the need to prove a disability on a claim of disability discrimination.  Even under the ADA as amended by the ADAAA, "[t]o prevail on a claim of disability discrimination under the ADA, [a party] must prove that (1) he has a disability; (2) he is qualified for the job; and (3) [the covered entity] made its adverse employment decision…because of [the party's] disability."

Under this, a plaintiff asserting an ADA claim must continue to prove "(1) the plaintiff is a 'qualified individual with a disability'; (2) the disability and its consequential limitations were 'known' by the covered employer; and (3) the employer failed to make 'reasonable accommodations' for such known limitations."

Moreover, the term "disability" continues to be defined as (a) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (b) a record of such an impairment; or (c) being regarded as having such an impairment.  Thus, under this holding, plaintiffs remain required to present sufficient evidence of a disability in order to maintain a claim under the ADA.

Moving forward, employers should continue to challenge a plaintiff's alleged disabilities through dispositive motions when appropriate.  An employee will still be required to prove the elements of their disability under the new definition contained in the ADAAA.  Employers should, however, be aware that a plaintiff's burden is lower than it was previously, and that a court will construe a plaintiff's allegations of a disability liberally under the ADAAA.