Joining the other federal appellate panels to consider the issue, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) did not alter or erode the understanding that the inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.
When he began working for Bloomberg in May 2011, Ronald Woolf signed a voluntary “self-identification form” stating that he did not have a disability and had no history of physical or mental impairments that substantially limited one or more major life activities.
Between 2011 and 2013, however, Woolf began suffering migraines that he claimed left him temporarily incapacitated. The migraines were related to his stress at work and worsened as he received performance reviews that placed him in the lower third of employees at the company.
As his managers began notifying him of his underperformance, low credibility internally, poor problem-solving skills and struggles to collaborate, Woolf asked whether he could transfer within the company, including to Asia.
The migraines and poor performance both continued until May 2013, when Woolf requested that he be permitted to continue performing the same job without being managed by his current supervisors due to his worsening migraines.
Bloomberg did not transfer Woolf but immediately granted medical leave. After another low performance review in September 2013, he was terminated.
Woolf responded with a lawsuit alleging violation of various state and federal laws, including discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On cross motions for summary judgment, a New York federal court judge ruled in favor of the employer after determining that Woolf was not disabled under the ADA.
On appeal, Woolf argued that his serious migraine condition, which was triggered by workplace stress, substantially limited his major life activity of working.
But the Second Circuit disagreed. By Woolf’s own admissions, he believed he could perform his job—if he were transferred to a different location or if he were managed by different supervisors.
This left him without recourse under the ADA, the panel said, because 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.
Woolf countered that precedential decisions establishing this understanding in the Second Circuit predated the ADAAA, in which Congress instructed courts to construe the definition of “disability” in the ADA “in favor of broad coverage of individuals.”
The panel was not persuaded.
“[N]othing 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,’” the court wrote.
“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.’”
Even after the ADAAA’s enactment, the Second Circuit has stuck with its position in non-precedential summary orders, the court noted, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s most recent interpretive guidance reinforced this understanding.
In addition, every circuit that has addressed the question post-ADAAA has ruled that the law “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,” the panel wrote, citing decisions from the First, Sixth, Seventh, Tenth and D.C. Circuits.
“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,” the Second Circuit said, affirming summary judgment in favor of the employer.
To read the opinion in Woolf v. Strada, click here.
Why it matters: The Second Circuit confirmed that even post-ADAAA, an employee’s inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working, joining the other circuits to consider the issue.