Textbook Application of Standard for Disability Under ADA - 5th Circuit
by Michael Fox
Yesterday's opinion by Judge Smith is a classic examination of the three part test that a plaintiff must pass before establishing the presence of a disability under the ADA. The claim was based on plaintiff's chronic pancreatitis. In Waldrip v. General Electric Co. (5th Cir. 4/1/03) [pdf], the court turned first to whether or not it was an impairment. The court found that chronic pancreatitis had been found to be an "impairment" in its own precedent, as well as the EEOC regulations. Additionally, GE did not contest that it was an impairment. Turning to the second requirement, the question was -- did the impairment affect a "major life activity." Here plaintiff claimed it affected eating, which the court held met the Supreme Court standard of "an activity of central importance to daily life", was more important than many other activities found to be major by prior 5th circuit cases, that three other circuits had found eating to be a major life activity with no contrary decisions, and the argument was supported by the EEOC's regulations.
But it was the third issue, which the court labeled the "linchpin" of the determination, that was the stumbling block for the plaintiff. The question is -- did the impairment "substantially limit" the activity of eating. Here, plaintiff's proof completely failed. His only proof was that he occasionally had to miss a few days work when his pancreatitis acted up. At most it showed only a temporary limitation which is not sufficient. Although breaking no new ground, this decision is a reminder of the heavy burden a plaintiff bears to establish the initial foundation of an ADA case -- that there is a disability as defined in law, not just a serious, even dangerous, health condition.