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Court Holds that Woman Diagnosed with Cancer Has Not Established that She is Disabled under the ADA

By on June 6, 2017 in Policy with 0 Comments

If an employee came to her employer and advised that she had been diagnosed with cancer, wouldn’t you automatically assume that the employee falls with the definition of “disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) due to the diagnosis alone? Not so fast.  In a recent Third Circuit case, Alston v. Park Pleasant, Inc., No. 16-1464,  2017 WL 627381 (3d Cir. Feb. 15, 2017), the Court reminded employers that nothing should be assumed and that each case requires an independent factual analysis. Just because an employee provides an employer with a specific diagnosis, this does not automatically mean that the employee is considered disabled under the ADA.

Facts

Joanie Alston (“Alston”) was hired by Park Pleasant, Inc. in 2011 as the Director of Nursing at an adult care facility.  Thereafter, in 2012, Alston’s performance started to deteriorate. In June 2012, Alston’s supervisors and HR Director met with her to advise her that her performance was not meeting expectations. Alston was put on a performance plan.  Five days later, Alston missed work to have a biopsy done.  On July 12th, Alston was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.  Thereafter, Alston’s performance continued to deteriorate and by late July, Alston’s supervisors were meeting with Alston weekly to discuss her performance deficiencies.  In August 2012 Alston was terminated.

Alston brought suit against Park Pleasant, Inc., claiming discrimination on the basis of age, race, color and disability.  The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Park Pleasant, Inc.  Alston then appealed only the Court’s granting of summary judgment in regards to her claim of discrimination on the basis of disability. The District Court had found that summary judgment was appropriate because Alston failed to prove that she had a disability.  The parties did not dispute that Alston had breast cancer but the question was whether or not Alston had presented enough evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether her cancer qualified as a disability.

Holding

The 3rd Circuit found that Alston had not established that she was disabled under the ADA.  Although cancer can – and generally will– be considered a disability under the ADA, the Court explained that there still must be an individualized assessment in each case as to whether or not the cancer substantially limits a major life activity (as required to fall within the protections of the ADA) for the specific employee.  To undertake the individualized assessment, courts have required some evidence of the plaintiff’s substantial limitation – even when the limitation seems self-evident. In the instant case, the Court found that Alston never claimed during the litigation that her cancer limited any substantial life activity (including immune system function or normal cell growth).  Alston’s Complaint made no mention of any type of limitations.  At her deposition, Alston testified that she was not limited in any major life activity.  Since Alston only supported her claim of disability by a generalized statement that she was diagnosed with cancer, without more, Alston failed to make out the prima facie case of disability discrimination under the ADA.

What does this case mean to you?

This case should remind employers that although the ADA is usually interpreted broadly, it is still important to conduct an individualized analysis of each employee and his/her specific illness/condition.  Each situation is fact specific, and only when an employee meets certain requirements, will he/she be entitled to the protections provided by the ADA.

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