In holding that an employee with cancer in remission is “disabled” under the expanded definition of “disability” in the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (“ADAAA”), a federal court has signaled a major change in the way courts have considered cases involving diseases that are in remission. The case is among the first in the nation to interpret the extent to which the Act broadens the scope of the conditions that may qualify as a “disability.” Specifically, the court addressed that portion of the ADAAA that defines “disability” to include “an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.”

Background

In Hoffman v. Carefirst of Fort Wayne Inc. d/b/a Advanced Healthcare, No. 1:09-CV-251 (N.D. Ind. Aug. 31, 2010), plaintiff, Stephen Hoffman, was diagnosed with Stage III Renal Carcinoma and underwent surgery to remove his left kidney. He returned to work a few months later without work restrictions from his doctors. For the ensuing year, Hoffman performed his normal job responsibilities as a service technician without incident. Thereafter, his employer acquired a contract with a new client that required all service technicians to work overtime, one night shift per week, and be on call on the weekends.

The very next day Hoffman provided a note from his doctor restricting him to 40 hours per week because of his cancer. Carefirst offered to allow him to work a 40-hour week out of its Fort Wayne, IN office but rejected his request to continue working a 40-hour week from his home office in Angola, IN. Hoffman refused to accept work at the Fort Wayne office because it would have added 2-3 uncompensated hours to his daily commute. He filed suit alleging the company improperly terminated his employment without offering a reasonable accommodation.

The Court’s Decision

In denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the court rejected the employer’s arguments that Hoffman was not disabled because his cancer was in remission and because he had worked full time for a year without restrictions. Relying on the expanded definition of disability in the ADAAA, the court held that Hoffman did not need to show that he was substantially limited in a major life activity at the time he requested an accommodation because his cancer, although in remission, would have substantially limited a major life activity if it were active.

Also of importance is the court’s treatment of the reasonable accommodation issue. The court noted that Carefirst failed to provide any evidence that the requested accommodation (allowing Hoffman to work from home) would have created an undue burden on the company. How much would it cost? How would it affect other service technicians’ workload? Were there enough customers in Hoffman’s home area to justify Hoffman having a continuous home office there? The court’s discussion on this point suggests that had Carefirst provided such evidence, the court may have found that Carefirst had satisfied its duty under the ADA to offer a reasonable accommodation.

Conclusion

It is important for employers to be cogniznant of the ADAAA’s expanded definition of “disability.” “Disabled” employees now include those whose impairment is episodic or in remission at the time an adverse employment action is taken or a request for an accommodation is made. Moreover, the Hoffman case highlights the importance of engaging in the interactive process with employees who have requested accommodations – even when the employee’s impairment may not be immediately noticeable by the employer. Of course, should this issue arise, the employer should consult with legal counsel before taking any adverse action against the employee.

Michael J. Riccobono is an Associate in the Gibbons Employment Law Department.