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Appeals Court Rules Diabetes a Disability

February 19, 2009
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Being an insulin-dependent diabetic can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, declined to rule whether the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 would apply retroactively to the case of the diabetic metallurgy specialist who sued his former employer under the ADA.

The San Francisco-based panel ruled last week that a district court was wrong to grant summary judgment to Larry Rohr’s one-time employer—the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District—when Rohr claimed to be protected under the ADA. According to the appellate court judges, Rohr had “presented a genuine issue of material fact that his diabetes substantially limited his major life activity of eating and thus raised a genuine issue as to whether he was ‘disabled’ within the meaning of the ADA.”

Rohr was diagnosed as an insulin-dependent type 2 diabetic in 2000 while working for Tempe, Arizona-based Salt River. In 2003, he learned that he had been assigned to work for five to six weeks on a project that required him to travel away from his office. As his condition was deteriorating, he informed his employer that despite following what he called a “very demanding regimen” to control his illness, he needed further accommodations, including not being required to engage in overnight travel, to manage his diabetes.

Both Rohr’s physician and a physician employed by Salt River agreed that Rohr’s travel should be restricted. In 2004, Salt River informed Rohr that his restrictions, including the ban on overnight travel, were preventing him from carrying out the essential functions of his job and gave him the choice of finding another position within Salt River that would be consistent with his limitations; applying for disability payments; or taking early retirement.

Rohr asked his doctor to lift the travel ban, which the doctor did. Salt River’s doctor, however, thought the restriction should remain in place even though he had initially opposed the move. Rohr then applied for disability benefits and brought suit against Salt River, claiming that he had been discriminated against on the basis of both disability and age, although he dropped the age discrimination action.

A district court granted Salt River summary judgment in 2006, and Rohr appealed. The appellate court panel found that being insulin-dependent can qualify as a disability. It also found that Rohr was a “qualified” individual—one who can perform the essential functions of the job—under the ADA. The district had found that Rohr was not qualified for his position because he had not obtained a required annual respirator certification, which Rohr held was discriminatory in and of itself. The panel remanded the case to the lower court for reconsideration.

In its opinion, the appeals panel said that the ADA Amendments Act, which was signed into law in September, “would provide additional support” for Rohr’s claims. The ADA Amendments Act instructs courts to read the ADA broadly. But since Rohr had provided “sufficient evidence” that he was covered under the ADA, “we therefore need not decide whether the ADAAA, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2009, applies retroactively to Rohr’s case.”

Filed by Mark A. Hofmann of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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