In Head v. Glacier Northwest Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not require employees to produce comparative or medical evidence to create a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether they have an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Further, the Ninth Circuit also held that an employee need only prove that his disability was a “motivating” factor in an employer’s decision to terminate him or otherwise take an adverse employment action against him. Taken together, these two holdings further stack the deck against employers in ADA lawsuits.
Establishing an Impairment that Limits a Major Life Activity
In Head, the plaintiff Matthew Head was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder in early 2001. In June of 2001, Head’s employer Glacier Northwest Incorporated (“Glacier”) terminated him for allegedly damaging company equipment. Head subsequently sued Glacier claiming, among other things, that his alleged disability was a motivating factor in his termination. Glacier filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing, in part, that the plaintiff failed to produce sufficient evidence that he had an impairment that substantially limited a major life activity.
The trial court granted Glacier’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to Head’s disability and record of disability discrimination claims but allowed Head’s discrimination claim for being “perceived” as disabled to move forward. The trial court justified its grant of summary judgment on the basis that Head failed to produce any comparative or medical evidence that he had an impairment that substantially limited a major life activity. Specifically, the only evidence submitted by Head was his own declaration.
Head’s declaration stated that he had difficulty: (1) sleeping (i.e. he would only get between five to six hours of sleep a night); (2) interacting with others (i.e. he would avoid crowds, stores, doctor’s appointments and would not leave his home on the weekends); (3) thinking (i.e. he had difficulty concentrating and his short-term memory was impaired); and (4) reading (i.e. he could not read for more than five minutes at a time).
The Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision and held that Head’s own declaration was sufficient to survive summary judgment. The only requirement that the Ninth Circuit placed on Head’s declaration is that it “must contain sufficient detail to convey the existence of an impairment.” Applying this rather lax standard, the Ninth Circuit held that Head’s declaration sufficiently alleged that he was impaired as to the major life activities of sleeping, thinking, interacting with others and reading. The long-term effect of this ruling is that employee declarations in ADA cases that allege (without any medical or other form of corroboration) various impairments are likely to survive summary judgment motions.
Motivating Factor Analysis
As the trial on Head’s “perceived as” disability discrimination claim neared conclusion, the Trial Court ruled that the jury be instructed that Head must establish that Glacier terminated his employment solely because of his perceived disability. In other words, the jury could only return a verdict in Head’s favor if, absent his perceived disability, he would not have been terminated. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Glacier.
Again, the Ninth Circuit reversed on the basis that the jury instruction was incorrect. The Ninth Circuit held that the jury should have been instructed that Head need only establish that his perceived disability was a “motivating factor” in his termination. In other words, Head’s disability claim could be successful even if Glacier had a multitude of other legitimate reasons for terminating his employment so long as Head’s termination was “motivated, even in part, by animus based on” disability.
Given that plaintiffs in the Ninth Circuit may now survive summary judgment based on their own declarations concerning alleged disabilities and that plaintiffs need only show that their alleged disabilities were a motivating factor in their employers’ adverse employment actions, employers will have even more difficulty defending against ADA claims. Further, the Head decision reinforces the importance of instituting preventative policies and practices that lower the risk of employee ADA issues blossoming into full-fledged lawsuits.