Third Circuit Revives Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Suit Over Faulty Disability Analysis

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides employees and job applicants protection against employment discrimination who: (1) have a disability; (2) have a record of a disability; or (3) are regarded as having a disability.

The Third Circuit recently revived a truck driver's ADA suit alleging Patrick Industries fired him for taking medical leave to recover from a lung biopsy procedure, saying a lower court fumbled its analysis of whether he was “regarded as” disabled under anti-discrimination law.

William Eshleman took two months of medical leave for a lung biopsy procedure and, six weeks after his return, took two vacation days for an upper respiratory infection. Following the second return, the employer fired him and offered shifting reasons for his termination.

Eshleman sued, alleging the company regarded him as an individual with a disability and fired him on that basis. A federal district court dismissed his claim, finding that his impairment was not eligible for coverage under the law’s "regarded as" prong because it was "transitory and minor.”

On appeal, a three-member panel said the district court improperly dismissed the suit because it only evaluated the "transitory" nature of his surgery to remove a nodule from his lung, but didn't separately consider whether it was "minor," as required. Minor means “objectively non-serious.”

Courts must evaluate whether an impairment is expected to last fewer than six months and analyze if it was minor in order to determine an employee's ability to meet the "regarded as" element of the definition of disability under the ADA.

"While the statute is silent on the meaning of 'minor,' the ADA regulations clearly state that an employer must establish that the perceived impairment is objectively both transitory and minor," Circuit Judge Theodore McKee wrote for the panel, adding that "'transitory' is just one part of the two prong 'transitory and minor' exception."

This new Eshleman decision will pave way for the expansion of ADA suits in the Third Circuit.

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