Employment Law Attorneys Top Answers: Can I be fired for having a heart attack? Can my boss discriminate against me because he perceives me as being disabled? What is considered a disability under the ADA?
The answer of whether a heart attack is considered a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is not a simple answer. That it is not a simple answer emphasizes the importance of obtaining qualified and knowledgeable employment law attorneys to help you if you face problems at work because of the heart attack. (Not that I am only addressing rights under the ADA in this blog, not the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”)).
The ADA was originally passed by Congress in 1990 and was later amended effective January 1, 2009. The amendment broadened the scope of what will be considered a disability.
The ADA was enacted “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12101(b)(1). Focusing on the employment components of the law, the ADA makes it unlawful for a “covered entity,” which the ADA defines as a person or company “engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has 15 or more employees,” from discriminating “against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). To win a disability discrimination claim, an employee must prove three things. First, that he or she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA. Second, that with or without reasonable accommodation the employee was able to perform the essential functions of the job. And third, that the employer discharged that employee in whole or in part because of his disability.
As set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2) of the ADA, the term “disability” means that an employee has one of the following”:
- a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual;
- a record of such an impairment; or
- being regarded as having such an impairment.
A ”physical impairment” is “[a]ny physiological disorder, or condition … or anatomical loss affecting,” among other things, the “cardiovascular” system. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)(1) (1995). “Major life activities” are defined as “functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.” See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i). “Substantially limited” is defined as being either “(i) Unable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform; or (ii) Significantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which an individual can perform a particular major life activity as compared to the condition, manner or duration under which the average person in the general population can perform that same major life activity.”
29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1). Factors to be considered in assessing whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity are: (i) The nature and severity of the impairment;(ii) The duration or expected duration of the impairment; and (iii) The permanent or long-term impact, or the expected permanent or long-term impact of or resulting from the impairment.”
29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(2). According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Compliance Manual:
Although short-term, temporary restrictions generally are not substantially limiting, an impairment does not necessarily have to be permanent to rise to the level of a disability. Some conditions may be long-term or potentially long-term, in that their duration is indefinite and unknowable or is expected to be at least several months. Such conditions, if severe, may constitute disabilities.
So, certainly, if an employee has coronary artery disease, or the heart attack left the employee with permeant damage to the heart muscle or valve, that employee will likely be considered to have a disability. However, if the employee had a minor heart attack that completely resolved within a few weeks or months, then it might be harder to argue a disability under (A) and (B) of the definition of disability and would likely necessitate good expert testimony. But that does end the issue for the employee who can still establish protection under (C) – that the employer regarded the heart attack as a disability.
This was addressed by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Katz v. City Metal Co., 87 F.3d 26, 32 (1st Cir. 1996), in which addressed the termination of an employee one month after a heart attack and held:
We need not definitively resolve the issue of whether expert medical testimony was necessary for the case to go forward on a theory of actual disability in this case, because we think that the evidence permitted Katz to reach the jury under one of the alternative definitions of disability, that City Metal “regarded [Katz] as having such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(C). Under the regulations an individual who has an impairment that is not substantially limiting (or has no impairment at all) is nevertheless “disabled” if he is treated by the employer as having an impairment that does substantially limit major life activities. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(l )(1). An example given is an employee whose controlled high blood pressure is not a disability but is reassigned because the employer fears, wrongly, that the employee may have a heart attack. Id. Pt. 1630, App. See also Cook, 10 F.3d at 20–21, 23, 25 (employer treated employee as handicapped by refusing to rehire her based on its belief that her morbid obesity would compromise her ability to do her job and put her at risk of developing serious ailments).
Likewise, in Brown v. Hartt Transp. Sys., Inc., 725 F. Supp. 2d 210, 236 (D. Me. 2010), the United States District Court for the District of Maine held that there was no actually disability but a perceived disability under the facts:
Two heart attacks and quintuple bypass reflect a severe impairment of cardiovascular function that can be expected to severely disrupt anyone’s life activities for a spell. The issue here is, squarely, the duration of such impairment. On balance, I conclude that the facts of the instant case are not sufficient to place Brown in the category of “disabled” under the ADA, as the term was construed at the time, because his impairment, though severe, was not of long enough duration. …
The purpose of the “regarded as” provision “is to protect impaired individuals from discrimination on the part of their employers who exclude such individuals because of the stereotypes, myths, and fears they hold of people who are so impaired.” Bilodeau, 50 F.Supp.2d at 38. A person is regarded as having a qualifying disability where: “(1) a covered entity mistakenly believes that a person has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or (2) a covered entity mistakenly believes that an actual, nonlimiting impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Sutton, 527 U.S. at 489, 119 S.Ct. 2139. Brown argues that Hartt regarded him as having a qualifying disability. He bases his argument on the following facts:
That he was told changes in the office were designed to make it less stressful for him;
That Castonguay indicated Brown was not informed of these changes initially because of concern for his fragile health;
That Castonguay suggested to Brown that he remain out on disability leave; and
That Hartt demanded a full release before Brown would be permitted to return. (Opp’n Mem. at 17–19.) In addition to these facts, I note that Hartt itself has indicated it did not know whether Brown would ever return to work. (DRS ¶ 55.) These facts, plus the circumstantial evidence of pretext, are sufficient to support an inference that Hartt regarded Brown as having an impairment of sufficient duration to meet the Williams “permanent or long term” requirement, which is the only factor otherwise preventing Brown from establishing a prima facie case of a qualifying disability or record of a qualifying disability.
Thus, while a heart attack can trigger protection under the ADA, it may not. Again, should you be facing a wrongful termination, demotion or other adverse employment action following a heart attack, it is absolutely critical to get advice from an employment lawyer. The strategy regarding an ADA claim will depend a lot on the specific facts of your case, the venue the case will be heard and judge that will hear the case. Often the goal will be to create enough leverage following a heart attack-based termination to settle the case before risking the entire case before a judge decides.
That is exactly what just happened with an employee of Vantage Energy Services, Inc. and Vantage International Management Company Pte. Ltd. The employee suffered a heart attack while working aboard one of the defendants’ drill ships off the coast of West Africa. Mere days before he was scheduled return to work, the employer fired him. Faced with a lawsuit, they caved and paid $54,5000 to settle the claim.
Having a medical condition or disability should not cause you to lose your job. If you are disabled or your employer perceives you as being disabled; and you have been fired, wrongfully terminated, discriminated against, demoted, wrongfully disciplined, denied wages, or even think that you might need a disability discrimination lawyer, then call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. Your best option is to reach out to our lawyers in Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati, Youngstown and Detroit to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its attorneys are experienced and dedicated to protecting disabled employees’ rights under ADA and Ohio employment law.
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