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Today we consider the recent case of Barsody v. Clearfield Area Sch. Dist., No. 22-2928, 2023 WL 3814038 (3d Cir. June 5, 2023). In this case, Leonard Barsody, proceeding pro se, which means representing himself (very bad idea) sued his employer Clearfield Area School District under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for disability discrimination and wrongful termination. Specifically, Barsody alleged in his complaint that he was subject to discrimination and harassment; and he identified his disability by stating that “experienced alcoholism in 2012, was treated at an inpatient psychiatric ward for short periods in 2012 and 2013, and, until 2018, was prescribed medication that ‘helped him maintain a normal work/sleep cycle.’” Id. at *1.

The employer filed a motion to dismiss in which it argued, in part, that Barsody failed to properly plead a disability with proper specificity.

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How much specificity is needed to identify a disability under the ADA?

There is no clear guide as to the level of specificity necessary to draft a complaint for employment discrimination. Some courts will accept general pleadings while other court will demand higher levels of details. Under the ADA, to plead a disability in a civil complaint, an employee generally needs to provide enough information to establish the disability as defined by the law. The ADA defines a disability as:

  1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,
  2. A record of such an impairment, or
  3. Being regarded as having such an impairment.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) was passed in 1990 it greatly expanded the definition of disability. Still, when pleading a disability under the ADA, a complaint typically needs to properly state the following elements:

  1. Identification of the impairment: The complaint should clearly state the physical or mental impairment that you believe qualifies as a disability under the ADA. It can be a specific condition, disorder, or limitation.
  2. Impact on major life activities: The complaint should explain how the impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities include functions like walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, and caring for oneself. The complaint needs to demonstrate that your impairment affects the employee’s ability to perform one or more of these activities.
  3. Connection to discrimination: The complaint should show a connection between the disability and the alleged discrimination. This means demonstrating that the employee was treated unfairly or subjected to adverse actions due to the identified disability. Depending on the court, a complaint may need to provide specific instances or examples of discriminatory treatment you experienced.

The level of detail required will depend on the circumstances of your case, the specific legal jurisdiction, and the stage of the legal proceedings. Consulting with an attorney experienced in disability rights or employment law is advisable, as they can guide you on the specific requirements for pleading a disability in your jurisdiction and help you present your case effectively.

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What is a motion to dismiss?

In the context of federal rules, a motion to dismiss is a legal filing made by a defendant in response to a complaint filed by the plaintiff. It is a request asking the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that even if all the allegations made by the plaintiff are true, they do not meet the legal requirements to proceed with the lawsuit.

When a defendant files a motion to dismiss, they typically argue that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. This means that the defendant believes the complaint does not sufficiently allege facts that, if true, would entitle the plaintiff to a legal remedy. The defendant may argue that the complaint lacks essential elements of a cause of action or that it fails to establish a legal basis for the alleged claims.

The court will review the motion to dismiss, along with the arguments and legal authorities presented by both parties and make a decision. When ruling on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the reviewing court must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Eid v. Thompson, 740 F.3d 118, 122 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)). To beat a motion to dismiss, a complaint must provide sufficient factual assertion, if accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The United States Supreme Court further clarified that this plausibility standard should not be conflated with a higher probability standard. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Courts will typically not consider bald assertions, unwarranted inferences, or legal conclusions. Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 n.8 (3d Cir. 1997). Thus, “[f]actual allegations of a complaint must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

This has become known as the Iqbal Twombly standard.

Furthermore, a plaintiff party is not required to establish the prima facie elements of a case in the complaint; but must only “put forth allegations that ‘raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s].’” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 213 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Graff v. Subbiah Cardiology Assocs., Ltd., 2008 WL 2312671 (W.D. Pa. June 4, 2008)); see also Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 790 (3d Cir. 2016). The primary question for a court in ruling on a motion to dismiss should not be whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but rather whether such plaintiff is entitled to eventually offer evidence to establish the facts alleged in the complaint. Maio v. Aetna, 221 F.3d 472, 482 (3d Cir. 2000).

Importantly, should a court decide to grant a motion to dismiss, it “must permit a curative amendment unless such an amendment would be inequitable or futile.” Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 174 (3d Cir. 2010) (internal quotations omitted).

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So, what happened with Barsody?

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision that Barsody failed to sufficiently plead his disability:

The District Court correctly determined that this “brief description of his disability” was insufficient to allow the Court to conclude he had a disability under the ADA. Dkt. No. 18 at 17-18; see Emory v. AstraZeneca Pharms. LP, 401 F.3d 174, 179-80 (3d Cir. 2005) (explaining that, under the ADA, a disability “substantially limits one or more … major life activities”); Tice v. Centre Area Transp. Auth., 247 F.3d 506, 513 n.5 (3d Cir. 2001) (“[A] particular diagnosis, no matter how severe (or severe-sounding to the layperson), standing alone, is not sufficient to establish ‘disability.’ “).

Barsody at *1.

While I agree that simply pointing to treatment (inpatient psychiatric care) and prior but no longer necessary medications do not establish a disability, I believe that Barsody sufficiently alleged that he is a recovering alcoholic by asserting that he “experienced alcoholism in 2012” – at least for the purposes of identifying a disability in a complaint. Alcoholism can be considered an actual disability under the ADA and certainly can be considered a perceived disability. And while I think that the district court judge and United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit got it wrong, the district court judge did offer Barsody the opportunity to amend his complaint to specifically state the disability that caused inpatient therapy and prescribed medications as well as to further clarify that he is a recovering alcoholic.

In response to this offer from the Court, Barsody basically told the Judge, “Nah man, I’m good.” As the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held: “Although the District Court properly provided Barsody the opportunity to provide further facts to support a finding of disability under the ADA, Barsody explicitly stated that he did not want to amend his complaint.” Id. at *1 (citation to the record omitted). Once Barsody thumbed his nose to the Court’s offer, his appeal was a practical waste of time.

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Should I get a lawyer to help me with my workplace disability discrimination claim under the ADA?

Yes! Absolutely! Having an attorney to help you navigate the extreme complexities of the ADA and employment discrimination laws is critical. Do not attempt to bring a claim on you own. Instead, it is in your best interest to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?). Call our top employment lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Kentucky to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.

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