Inability To Perform Firefighter’s Job, Standing Alone, Is Not Enough To Establish ADA Claim

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines “disability” as: (A) A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment. The regulations interpreting the ADA list “working” as a major life activity.

In 1999, Lisa Starkey was hired as a firefighter by the City of Burnsville, Minnesota. In 2003, Starkey was diagnosed as suffering from multiple sclerosis. In 2006, Starkey failed a physical fitness test given by the City. The City terminated Starkey, encouraging her to apply for disability benefits. In its termination letter to Starkey, the City noted the results of physical testing and “documented performance concerns” during the preceding three months, and indicated that Starkey was unable to perform the essential functions of her job.

Starkey filed an ADA lawsuit against the City, contending that the City’s termination decision was because it “regarded her as having an impairment.” A federal court rejected Starkey’s claims.

To qualify for protection under the ADA, the Court found, an employee must show that his/her impairment substantially limited a major life activity. Starkey argued that the City regarded her as substantially limited in the major life activity of “working” since it terminated her from her firefighter’s job.

The Court found that “to be substantially limited in the major life activity of working, a person must be significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities. The inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.

“Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations identify factors for courts to consider in determining whether a person is substantially limited in the major life activity of working; these factors included determining the geographical area to which the person has access, and the number and types of jobs utilizing similar training, knowledge, skills or abilities, within the geographical area, from which the individual is also disqualified. The other jobs from which Starkey was barred at the fire station are a fairly narrow subset of jobs in one very small location and do not constitute the class of jobs or a broad range of jobs within a general geographical area, as contemplated for a ‘regarded as’ claim.”

Starkey v. City of Burnsville, Minn., 2008 WL 2788049 (D.Minn. 2008).

This article appears in the October 2008 issue