Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
423 Fed. Appx. 467
April 28, 2011 Keywords:
definition of disability, employment, interactive process, restrictive
Facts of the Case
Marie Picard worked for St. Tammany Parish Hospital as a transcriptionist from July 1998 to November 2006. Picard was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease, a condition delaying nerve impulse propagation. The condition resulted in Picard having difficulty walking, working, shopping, and engaging in activities requiring fine motor skills. Picard’s doctor wrote a letter to her employer indicating that as a result of the CMT, her ability to perform her transcription duties was “impaired” and “constituted a significant handicap”. The doctor suggested that this be taken into account in performance reviews. Subsequently, in 2005, another of her doctors wrote to her employer that it would be beneficial for her to have the speech-to-text software, Dragon Naturally Speaking, installed on her computer to improve her work performance. St. Tammany did not provide the software or engage in an interactive process. She was permitted to use another program, ExSpeak. Picard tried the alternate program, finding it difficult and painful, and informed her employer that she could not use it. She then resigned from her position in November 2006.
On February 4, 2008, Picard filed suit against St. Tammany in the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleging a violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At trial, a jury found for the employer defendant, holding that Picard’s CMT was not a disability as defined by the ADA. Picard appealed this ruling, and also appealed on the grounds that the jury should have been instructed that an employer’s failure to engage in “interactive process” is a “per se” violation of the ADA.
Issues of the Case
- Does the plaintiff’s Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease substantially limit a major life activity?
- Is an employer’s failure to engage in an interactive process a presumptive violation of the ADA?
Arguments & Analysis
1. An Impairment Which Affects Major Life Activities May Not Be Substantial.
Picard testified that she could manage her difficulty walking by paying attention and that a friend assisted her in shopping. She testified that she sometimes dropped items due to limitations in fine motor skills, but also that she was able to perform at her next employment position, including “pulling apart charts” and filing. The court reasoned that based on these facts, and her ability to continue working, the jury might have concluded she did not have a qualifying disability under the ADA.
2. The Interactive Process is Not Always Required under the ADA.
The Fifth Circuit has acknowledged that an interactive process may be needed in order to negotiate a reasonable accommodation. However, an interactive process may not be required, for instance, in circumstances where the accommodation request is so obvious that no negotiation is needed, or when the employee has not established that a qualifying disability exists before requesting an accommodation. Therefore, the failure to engage in an interactive process is not a “per se” violation of the ADA.
The 5th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling for the employer, holding that a reasonable jury could have found that Picard’s condition was not a disability, and that the district court did not make a mistake in opting not to instruct the jury that failure to engage in an interactive process is a per se violation of the ADA.
Policy & Practice
The 5th Circuit Uses a Restrictive Definition of Disability, Relative to What Constitutes a “Substantial” Impairment.
The definition of disability suggested in this case appears to presume that an impairment is less likely to be “substantial” if it can be managed by the individual, or with third party assistance, or if it does not completely negate participation in a major life activity. While it should be acknowledged that the incidents underlying this case preceded the implementation of the ADA Amendments Act, the narrow interpretation of “substantial” in this case may be incorrect under present law.
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These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.