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With the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) and its expansion of the definition of “disability,” some would argue that the focus should no longer be on whether someone meets the definition of a “disability.” The presumption being that it is much easier now to prove someone is “disabled” under the law. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has recently issued a ruling contracting this assumption.

In Neely v. PSEG Tex., LP, Jeffrey Neely brought suit against his employer asserting a number of different claims including ADA claims of failure to accommodate, discharge and retaliation.  On appeal, Neely argued that because of the changes made by the ADAAA, the focus is no longer on whether the employee has a disability but rather on whether acts of discrimination occurred.  The Court of Appeals denied Neely’s argument, clearly stating that although Congress may have intended to broaden the definition of disability in amending the ADA, this “in no way eliminated the term [disability] from the ADA or the need to prove a disability on a claim of disability discrimination.”

“A Qualified Individual With a Disability”

On appeal, Neely challenged two jury interrogatories.  Specifically, he argued that the jury should not have been asked to determine whether he was a “qualified individual with a disability” as a predicate to finding whether he was subjected to unlawful discrimination based on his disability.  The jury had answered “no” to this question for both his reasonable accommodation and his discharge claim.  Neely claimed that including the words “with a disability” as part of the jury interrogatory conflicted with the purpose of the ADAAA, which was to expand the coverage of the ADA by simplifying the definition of disability in order to switch the focus from whether an individual is disabled to whether evidence of discrimination exists in the adverse action.

The Fifth Circuit found no error and affirmed the jury verdict.  The Court of Appeals clearly stated that despite the ADAAA, to prevail on a claim of disability discrimination a party must still prove that he has a disability – “though the ADAAA makes it easier to prove a disability, it does not absolve a party from proving one.”   In arriving at its holding, the Fifth Circuit also rejected Neely’s suggestion that the ADAAA altered the text of the ADA in regard to the use of the phrase “qualified individual with a disability.”  The Court  explained that the changes were made to harmonize the general language and terminology of the ADA to similar language and terminology in Title VII and further noted that not every usage of the phrase “qualified individual with a disability” was eliminated.

Then and Now

Prior to the ADAAA an American Bar Association Survey found that in 1999 employers were winning 95% of ADA lawsuits and 85% of ADA administrative claims.  It is unclear where these numbers may be now, following the ADAAA.  However, the Neely case provides some helpful insight, finding that the ADAAA did not shift or eliminate the plaintiff’s burden in ADA cases.

The Neely case also affirmatively answers an important post-ADAAA question – does disability matter?  The Fifth Circuit clearly held that the ADAAA did not change the elements that a plaintiff must meet to prevail in an ADA discharge claim or a failure to accommodate claim.  The ADAAA did expand what may qualify as a disability, but a plaintiff who alleges he was disabled is still required to prove his disability.