The Ninth Circuit’s holding in Gribben v. United Parcel Service illustrates the principle that employing an overly technical analysis to determine an employer’s obligations to its employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") is risky.  The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities, which it defines as “physical or mental impairment[s] that substantially limit[] one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual.”  The regulations interpreting this statute further explain that the requisite substantial limitation may be shown where a person is “[u]nable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform.”

In this case, one of United Parcel Services’ (UPS) shifter drivers (a driver of vehicles used to transfer trailers among various sites) claimed that his heart condition, which caused shortness of breath and labored breathing, weakness, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and chest pain and other related complications, when working in the extreme heat for more than twenty minutes at a time, was a “disability.”  As a result of this condition, the employee claimed he was unable to perform jobs requiring too much exertion, such as loading or unloading trailers and sorting or lifting in the over 90 degree heat of Arizona.  Thus, he requested an air conditioned truck as an accommodation.

However, the employer concluded that the employee was not “disabled” within the definition of the statute because the employee could perform major life activities, albeit not for more than twenty minutes at a time in temperatures over ninety degrees.  Thus, UPS sometimes provided an air conditioned vehicle, but determined that, for business reasons, they could not guarantee it.  On one of the days UPS could provide only a non-air conditioned vehicle for Plaintiff’s use, Plaintiff refused to work and, as a result, was terminated.  This lawsuit for disability discrimination (and other claims) ensued.

Before the lower court, the employer argued, consistent with a technical reading of the regulations above, that because there was no evidence that the “average person in the general population” could participate in outdoor activities in the Phoenix summer, there was no evidence of substantial limitation and, thus, no disability or attendant duty to provide reasonable accommodation.  The Ninth Circuit rejected that argument and held that Plaintiff’s testimony, even absent comparative evidence of others’ ability to perform in extreme heat, was enough evidence of possible disability to necessitate the time and expense of trial.  Thus, this case serves as a reminder that employers should carefully weigh the feasibility of a requested accommodation and should be wary of the temptation to take an overly narrow or technical view of what constitutes a “disability” when assessing its obligations.