The Revitalized ADA: A Case In Point

One could hardly ask for a better example of the revitalized Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) than the case of Troy Franklin, a corrections officer with the City of Slidell, Louisiana. Though the case has far to go – and so far Franklin has chosen to act as his own lawyer – an initial decision by a court shows the extent to which a 2008 amendment to the ADA has influenced the course of the law.

Franklin’s lawsuit alleged that on September 5, 2008, he received a death threat from one of his captains. After receiving the death threat, Franklin filed a complaint with the Slidell Police Department’s Internal Affairs division and was referred to the employee assistance program. An unidentified individual at the employee assistance program informed Franklin that he might be suffering from “Post Traumatic Syndrome.”

The City referred Franklin to Dr. Harold Ginzburg for a psychiatric evaluation. Dr. Ginzburg found that Franklin was fit for duty but needed counseling, and also recommended that Franklin and the captain be separated. The City failed to separate the captain and Franklin, and Franklin claimed he received numerous unexpected visits from the captain before taking sick leave with the permission of the Police Chief.

When a new chief took over, on his first day in office he ordered Franklin to submit to a fitness for duty evaluation by a psychologist. When the examination found Franklin to be unfit for duty, the Chief fired him. Franklin responded by filing a sweeping lawsuit that included a number of ADA claims, most of which centered on the requirement that he take the fitness for duty evaluation.

When the City filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the first question the Court had to decide was whether Franklin had a disability that was covered by the ADA. The ADA defines a “disability” as (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual; (B) a record of such impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment. Whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity requires an individualized assessment, and a “physical or mental impairment” includes any mental or psychological disorder such as an emotional or mental illness.

Simply having an impairment is insufficient to make one disabled under the ADA; the impairment must also substantially limit “a major life activity.” A “major life activity” includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

In deciding whether Franklin was potentially covered by the ADA, the Court recited the changes brought to the ADA by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, known as the ADAAA: “Prior to January 1, 2009, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Sutton v. United Airlines, when determining whether an individual was substantially limited in a major life activity and thus disabled within the meaning of the ADA, courts were to take into account the positive and negative effects of measures or devices taken to mitigate a physical or mental impairment. In addition, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. v. Williams, the Court held that substantially limited meant that an individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.

“In the ADAAA, Congress overruled Sutton and amended the ADA to mandate that courts determine whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity without taking into account the effects of mitigating measures or devices. Congress also overruled the Court’s holding in Williams that to be substantially limited in performing a major life activity under the ADA, an individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives, explaining that it created an inappropriately high level of limitation necessary to obtain coverage under the ADA. Congress also stated that the term substantially limits is not meant to be a demanding standard and should be broadly construed in favor of expansive coverage.”

The Court found that under the relaxed standards of the ADAAA, Franklin had sufficiently alleged that he had a disability. The Court cited the EEOC’s regulations interpreting the ADAAA, regulations that state “the individualized assessment of some types of impairments will, in virtually all cases, result in a determination of coverage. It should easily be concluded that the following types of impairments will, at a minimum, substantially limit the major life activities indicated: Deafness substantially limits hearing, and post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia substantially limit brain function.”

Applying the regulations, the Court found that Franklin had adequately alleged that he had a disability: “Franklin alleges that after he received a death threat from his supervisor, he was informed that he might be suffering from ‘Post Traumatic Syndrome,’ which the Court liberally construes as a reference to post-traumatic stress disorder. Considering that Congress has clearly indicated that the threshold question of whether an individual’s impairment constitutes a disability should not demand extensive analysis, and that the EEOC regulations interpreting the ADA indicate that post-traumatic stress disorder is an impairment that should easily be concluded to substantially limit brain function, the Court finds that Franklin has adequately pleaded that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA.”

The Court also found that the City’s demand for a fitness for duty evaluation triggered the ADA even if Franklin was not disabled: “Under the ADA, an employer shall not require a medical examination and shall not make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of the disability, unless such examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity. A medical or psychological fitness for duty examination triggers the ADA if a goal of the proposed examination is to determine whether the employee is an individual with a disability or to determine the nature or severity of the disability. In addition, a medical or psychological fitness for duty examination may also trigger the protections of the ADA if the examination would tend to or is likely to reveal an employee’s disability.

“Although some courts have concluded that an individual must be a qualified individual with a disability in order to sue over fitness for duty evaluations, the greater weight of authority has reached the opposite conclusion. For the reasons articulated by the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, the Court finds that Franklin can maintain his claims concerning the fitness for duty evaluation regardless of whether he has pleaded that he is a qualified individual with a disability within the scope of the ADA.”

The Court was also quite skeptical of the argument that it could require all employees returning from sick leave to undergo a fitness for duty evaluation: “As a general proposition, a medical fitness for duty examination is permissible when the employer can identify legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to doubt the employee’s capacity to perform his or her duties. Courts have established a high standard to satisfy the business necessity exception to guard against employers using medical exams as a pretext to harass employees or to fish for nonwork-related medical issues and the attendant unwanted exposure of the employee’s disability and the stigma it may carry. Courts have found that the business necessity exception applies at summary judgment if the employer shows that before it required the fitness for duty examination, health problems had a substantial and injurious impact on an employee’s job performance, or it reasonably perceived an officer to be even mildly paranoid, hostile, or oppositional. The Court finds, contrary to the City’s contentions, that the fact that an employee was a police officer returning to work from sick leave does not alone constitute a legitimate reason to require a fitness for duty examination. Under that rationale, an employer could lawfully require a police officer returning to active duty from sick leave of any duration for any illness to submit to medical and psychological fitness for duty examinations. Such a rule – even with regard to police officers – would easily lend itself to the kind of employer abuse of medical and psychological examinations that the ADA aims to prevent.”

Franklin v. City of Slidell, 2013 WL 1288405 (E.D. La. 2013).