Every Impairment Is Not An ADA-Protected Disability
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania threw attorneys a curve ball in its recent decision in Mengel v. Reading Eagle Co., by finding that the plaintiff’s partial deafness was not a protected disability under the ADA.
Christine Mengel was employed as a copy writer and page designer at Reading Eagle since 1999. Ms. Mengel became totally deaf in one ear following a surgery to remove a brain tumor in November 2007. The partial deafness caused her to have balance problems and difficulty concentrating. Reading Eagle was aware of Ms. Mengel’s hearing problems. Ms. Mengel, however, continued to perform her job functions without accommodation.
In January 2009, Reading Eagle reduced its workforce, and terminated Ms. Mengel in April 2009. She filed a complaint with the EEOC for, among other things, disability discrimination. Ms. Mengel claimed that she was included in the workforce reduction due to her alleged disability - deafness in one ear. The District Court dismissed Ms. Mengel’s complaint at summary judgment, holding that she failed to present prima facie evidence that she was disabled under the ADA.
The District Court recognized that hearing is a major life activity and bilateral hearing loss is an ADA-protected disability. The District Court found, however, that Ms. Mengel failed to demonstrate that deafness in just one ear substantially limited her hearing. The evidence indicated that the partial deafness was only a “distraction” to Ms. Mengel and she had no specific problems resulting from the impairment, with the exception that she “didn’t hear some things.” Although her employer was aware of her impairment, there was no evidence of a causal link between her condition and her termination. The District Court pointed to the 18 month time period between the surgery and her termination, noting that Ms. Mengel continued to work and obtain satisfactory reviews even after the condition arose.
In this matter, the District Court looked critically to whether a subset of an otherwise protected disability also received protected status, and found that it did not. Notably, this court did not draw a hard line with respect to partial deafness, but confirmed that it is the employee’s burden to demonstrate that their claimed impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 mandated that the definition of “disability” be broadly interpreted, thus making it easier for an employee seeking protection under the ADA to establish that she has a qualifying disability. In the post-Amendments world, employers and courts spent little time analyzing whether an alleged impairment fell within the ADA definition of disability. This case is significant as it brings the definition of disability back into play.
The take away from the Mengel case is that even after the Amendments to the ADA, courts are still willing to review the merits of a disability claim. This case does not invite employers to cease assessing employees’ alleged disabilities or refuse to engage in the interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation should be offered where warranted. However, the Mengel court alerts employers to continue to analyze whether the claimed impairment is protected disability under the ADA. Similarly, where litigation has arisen, employers should keep this argument in its arsenal. The message for employees is one of caution – simply claiming an impairment is protected by the ADA is not enough without evidence that it substantially limits a major life activity. Employers should always consult with experienced legal counsel before taking any adverse employment action against an employee who has alleged a disability under the ADA.