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The Impact of the 2008 ADA Amendments on the Definition of "Substantial Limitation" Under the Ohio Civil Rights Act

Client Alert

Both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Ohio Civil Rights Act (OCRA) provide a cause of action for persons who suffer an adverse employment action because of an actual, recorded, or perceived disability.[i] Both laws define “disability” to mean:

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • A record of a physical or mental impairment; or
  • Being regarded as having a physical or mental impairment.[ii]

 “Disability,” therefore, “is a statutory term-of-art with three meanings,” any one of which a plaintiff must satisfy to state a prima facie case of discrimination.[iii] Given the many similarities between the ADA and its Ohio counterpart, the Supreme Court of Ohio has long held that courts “can look to regulations and cases interpreting the federal Act for guidance in our interpretation of Ohio law.”[iv] This is not to say that the two statutes are co-extensive. Rather, federal “guidance is relevant only to the extent that Ohio statutes and federal statutes use the same definitions.”[v] Thus, it is well-accepted that federal cases decided prior to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) are not applicable to “regarded as” disabled claims under Ohio law because prior to 2008, the ADA and the OCRA utilized inconsistent standards for this prong of the “disability” analysis.[vi]

On the other hand, the extent to which federal regulatory and decisional guidance is applicable to the interpretation of “substantially limits” under Ohio’s disability discrimination law has been unsettled in the wake of the ADAAA.[vii] Prior to 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States interpreted the “substantially limits” prong of “disability” to require a “permanent or long term” impairment that “prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.”[viii] Applying this precedent, Ohio courts likewise held that to be “substantially limited” a person must suffer from an “impairment that severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.”[ix]

Among other things, the ADAAA sought to overturn what Congress believed to be an overly restrictive interpretation of “substantially limits.”[x] Accordingly, the portion of the ADA governing construction of the term “disability” was amended so that “[t]he definition of disability in this Act shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals under this Act, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this Act” and “[t]he term ‘substantially limits' shall be interpreted consistently with the findings and purposes of the [Act].”[xi] Regulations promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission went even further, providing that “an impairment need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, the individual from performing a major life activity in order to be considered substantially limiting.”[xii] In the wake of the 2008 amendments, “[t]he primary object of attention in cases brought under the ADA should be whether covered entities have complied with their obligations and whether discrimination has occurred, not whether an individual’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity.”[xiii]

The import of the ADAAA cannot be overstated. Employers who previously availed themselves of the Supreme Court’s more restrictive interpretation of “substantially limits” to obtain summary judgment based on a plaintiff’s failure to state a prima facie case are now reevaluating their approach to federal disability discrimination claims. This is understandable, since evidence which “certainly failed to demonstrate a substantial limitation of any major life activity” pre-ADAAA is now usually sufficient to overcome summary judgment.[xiv]

The situation is less clear in the context of disability discrimination claims under Ohio law. To be sure, both the ADA and the Ohio Civil Rights Act utilize the same “substantially limits” language that Congress and the EEOC now require to be “construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage.”[xv] In light of the Supreme Court of Ohio’s longstanding deference to federal interpretations of the ADA, it might seem only natural to apply the more expansive federal interpretation of “substantially limits” to claims arising under Ohio law, particularly since “substantially limits” is not defined in the OCRA.[xvi] Accordingly, many Ohio courts have assumed, without deciding, that the new ADAAA standards govern the interpretation of “substantially limits” under the OCRA.[xvii] Applying Ohio law, one federal court has gone even further and held that Ohio courts applying the OCRA would not apply pre-2008 precedent to determine whether a plaintiff is “disabled.”[xviii]

The obvious distinction, however, is that the Ohio General Assembly has not amended the OCRA to impose a more expansive interpretation of “substantially limits” the way Congress did with the ADAAA.[xix] Thus, while federal guidance may be appropriate “to the extent that Ohio statutes and federal statutes use the same definitions,”[xx] that is not necessarily the case with the ADAAA and the OCRA. As the Seventh District recently held in Barber v. Chestnut Land Co., the fact that the ADA was amended to “[direct] the federal regulations to be modified to a lesser standard […] does not mandate state courts to change their own interpretation of a certain term […].”[xxi] Applying this precedent, trial courts are beginning to note the discrepancies between the ADAAA and Ohio law and are properly applying the pre-2008 interpretation of “substantially limits” to disability claims under the OCRA.

In a recent opinion, the Lake County Court of Common Pleas applied pre-ADAAA Ohio caselaw defining “substantial limitation” to hold that the plaintiff’s diabetic neuropathy did not constitute a “disability” under the OCRA.[xxii]  Although the court noted that the Plaintiff’s impairment was “presumably permanent,” it found that “her difficulties walking […] clearly did not severely restrict her.”[xxiii] This was the case even though the plaintiff’s condition caused her to stumble a couple times a week, make her unsteady, and required her to walk at a slower pace, sometimes with the assistance of leg braces. Relying on Ohio appellate court opinions holding that “moderate difficulty in walking may not establish a substantial impairment,”[xxiv] the Court held that the plaintiff was not “substantially limited” in a major life activity and could not state a prima facie case of disability discrimination.

In response to the plaintiff’s argument that pre-2008 Ohio case law defining “substantial limitation” was inapplicable in light of the ADAAA, the court acknowledged that “Ohio courts may apply federal cases and regulations when interpreting Ohio law,” but “only when the laws are similar.”[xxv] Because “the Ohio statute was not changed to instruct on a lesser standard” the way the ADA was in 2008, the court concluded that it was correct to follow Ohio state court precedent holding that “substantial limitation” requires “a severe restriction.”[xxvi]

This approach is consistent with long-established rules of statutory construction, which require Ohio courts to interpret undefined statutory terms according to their “plain and ordinary meaning.”[xxvii] This is the interpretive standard that guided the U.S. Supreme Court’s construction of “substantially limits” prior to 2008. In Toyota Motor Mfg., Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, for example, the Court cited to Webster’s Dictionary to define “substantially” as “considerable,” or “to a large degree.”[xxviii] The common meaning of the word “substantial,” the Court held, “clearly precludes impairments that interfere in only a minor way with the performance of manual tasks from qualifying as disabilities.”[xxix]

When Congress enacted the ADAAA to expand this definition, it did so in derogation from the common meaning of “substantially limits” as found by the Supreme Court. As a legislative and policy making body, Congress had every right to this. It is something else entirely for a court applying Ohio law to jettison the rules of construction and derogate from the plain and ordinary meaning of an undefined statutory term absent express legislative authorization from the General Assembly. As articulated by the Supreme Court of Ohio, “the role of a court is not to decide what the law should say; rather, the role of this court is to interpret what the law says as it has been written by the General Assembly—regardless of whether it constitutes sound policy.”[xxx]

Absent action by the General Assembly to bring Ohio disability discrimination law into line with federal standards, courts can and should refer back to pre-2008 federal interpretations of “substantially limits” when deciding whether a plaintiff is “disabled” within the meaning of the OCRA. This result is consistent with the plain language of the Ohio Civil Rights Act, respects the dual nature of our federalist system, and gives due deference to the General Assembly as the body responsible for the enactment and any future amendment of the OCRA. 

© 2017 Daniel J. Rudary

 

[i] 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a); R.C. 4112.02(A).

[ii] 42 U.S.C. § 12102; R.C. 4112.01(A)(13).

[iii] Ogilbee v. Bd. of Edn. of Dayton Pub. Sch., 2nd Dist. Montgomery No. 23432, 2010-Ohio-1913, ¶ 23.

[iv] Columbus Civ. Serv. Comm. v. McGlone, 82 Ohio St. 3d 569, 573, 1998-Ohio-410, 697 N.E.2d 204.

[v] Johnson v. Metrohealth Med. Ctr., 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 82506, 2004-Ohio-2864, ¶ 9.

[vi] See Scalia v. Aldi, Inc., 9th Dist. Summit No. 25436, 2011-Ohio-6596, ¶ 25 (“Because the plain language of the definition of disability contained in R.C. 4112.01 differs in substance from the ADA, it is not appropriate to look to federal materials interpreting the pre–2008 ADA with respect to perceived disability claims under Ohio law.”).

[vii] Pub.L. No. 110–325, 122 Stat. 3553.

[viii] Toyota Motor Mfg., Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, 198 (2002), overturned due to legislative action (2009).

[ix] House v. Kirtland Capital Partners, 158 Ohio App. 3d 68, 2004-Ohio-3688, 814 N.E.2d 65, ¶ 37 (11th Dist. Lake) (italics in original).

[x] See Jenkins v. Nat'l Bd. of Med. Examiners, 6th Cir. No. 08-5371, 2009 WL 331638, *3 (Feb. 11, 2009) (“Congress overturned the definition of ‘substantially limits’ put forward in Toyota and directed the courts to interpret the term in a more inclusive manner.”).

[xi] 42 U.S.C. § 12102(4)(A), (B).

[xii] 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ii).

[xiii] Id. at § 1630.2(j)(1)(iii).

[xiv] Taylor v. Specialty Restaurants Corp., S.D. Ohio No. 2:12-CV-44, 2014 WL 4922942, *4 (Sept. 30, 2014).

[xv] 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(i).

[xvi] See Carnahan v. Morton Bldgs. Inc., 2015-Ohio-3528, 41 N.E.3d 239, ¶ 28 (3rd Dist. Paulding) (Preston, J., concurring) (looking to federal regulations defining “substantially limits” because “‘substantially limits’ is not defined by R.C. Chapter 4112.”).

[xvii] See, e.g., Camp v. Star Leasing Co., 10th Dist. No. 11AP–977, 2012-Ohio-3650, ¶ 55 n.4 (discussing the ADAAA and assuming it applies to claims under Ohio law, but declining to apply the more expansive definition because the plaintiff’s discharge occurred prior to 2008); Bibee v. Gen. Revenue Corp., 2013-Ohio-1753, 991 N.E.2d 298, ¶ 7 (1st Dist. Hamilton) (citing the ADAAA and holding that “Ohio courts look to federal cases and regulations to aid in interpreting the Ohio law,” but declining to apply the ADAAA standards because the plaintiff’s discharge occurred prior to their effective date).

[xviii] Welch v. IAC Huron, LLC, N.D. Ohio No. 3:12-CV-02334, 2013 WL 4817591, *3 (Sept. 10, 2013) (holding, “Ohio courts no longer would apply the Williams temporary/permanent distinction Congress rejected, and that the temporal duration of Welch's condition would not disqualify that condition as a disability under the meaning of O.R.C. § 4112.01(A)(13).”).

[xix] Barber v. Chestnut Land Co., 2016-Ohio-2926, 63 N.E.3d 609, ¶ 85 (7th Dist. Mahoning) (“Ohio courts can, but need not, apply federal cases and regulations interpreting terms used in Ohio law. Most notable, the Ohio statute was not changed to instruct on a lesser standard. Even where federal material is viewed, the positions espouses [sic] therein is [sic] only adopted where the statutes are similar.”).

[xx] Johnson at ¶ 9.

[xxi] Barber at ¶ 86.

[xxii] DiSantis v. Lake Hospital System, Inc., Lake Cnty. C.P. No. 16CV000994 (December 19, 2016).

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] Maracz v. United Parcel Service, 8th Dist. Cuayhoga No. 83432, 2004-Ohio-6851, ¶ 37.

[xxv] DiSantis v. Lake Hospital System, Inc., Lake Cnty. C.P. No. 16CV000994 (December 19, 2016).

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] State ex rel. Data Trace Info. Servs., L.L.C. v. Cuyahoga Cty. Fiscal Officer, 131 Ohio St. 3d 255, 2012-Ohio-753, 963 N.E.2d 1288, ¶ 49; see also R.C. 1.42 (“Words and phrases shall be read in context and construed according to the rules of grammar and common usage.”).

[xxviii] Williams, 534 U.S. at 196.

[xxix] Id. at 197.

[xxx] Clark v. Scarpelli, 91 Ohio St. 3d 271, 291, 2001-Ohio-39, 744 N.E.2d 719.

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