ADA Amendments Cover Knee Injury of Fired Foreman

Court decisions applying the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) are beginning to provide insight into the applicability of the amendments to certain medical conditions. A recent Florida court decision underscores the importance of applying the broader definition of disability under the ADAAA to medical conditions that might not have qualified as disabilities under the old law due to the ameliorative effect of treatment or the employee’s own actions. Harty v. Sanford (M.D. Fla. 2012).

In this case, former employee Richard Harty had a pre-existing knee injury when he was hired by the City as an equipment operator in 2007. A city-designated doctor verified that he was physically able to perform the functions of that job. The City subsequently promoted Harty to foreman—a job that required standing, walking, reaching, climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and lifting or moving up to 50 pounds.

Because of his knee injury, Harty had learned to modify the way he performed certain physical maneuvers: instead of kneeling, for example, he would bend at the waist or sit on his hip. Despite his modifications, he re-injured his knee at work, was placed on light duty, and was ultimately released to full duty, but with permanent limitations in squatting, kneeling, using stairs, running, and jumping. The City terminated Harty, allegedly because he could not perform the essential functions of his job.

Harty sued, claiming disability discrimination. The City moved for summary judgment arguing that Harty was not disabled under the Act. The court rejected the City’s motion explaining that to be disabled post-ADAAA, the employee need only show that his physical impairment “substantially” limited one or more of his major life activities. The court could not consider Harty’s modifications to how he performed physical maneuvers in its analysis. The court found the evidence of Harty’s permanent restrictions sufficient to show that he was disabled. 

Employers need to be mindful that past conclusions about whether or not an employee is disabled may no longer apply. Any analysis to determine whether or not an employee is disabled under the ADAAA should be done by applying the broad definition of disability that favors coverage under the Act.