In Woolf v. Strada, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in February 2020, the court considered whether the plaintiff’s inability to perform his particular job as a result of migraines and stress arising from the circumstances surrounding his job gave rise to a qualifying disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), as amended.
In Woolf, the plaintiff suffered from migraines that he contended were related to stress at work. The migraines left him temporarily incapacitated and impaired his ability to work and to participate in life activities more generally. As a result, his work performance declined and he received negative performance reviews. Throughout this time, the plaintiff made multiple requests to transfer to a different position or to be assigned different supervisors, providing a note from his neurologist in support of his requests. The employer did not grant the plaintiff’s transfer requests on account of his poor job performance, but encouraged him to take medical leave to address his condition and provided him with intermittent paid medical leave. Eventually, after receiving another subpar performance review and a written disciplinary warning, the employer terminated the plaintiff’s employment. The plaintiff then sued, alleging that his employer violated state and federal disability discrimination laws by refusing to transfer him and terminating his employment.
In support of his claims, Mr. Woolf argued that his stress-induced migraines constituted a disability under the ADA because they substantially limited him in the major life activity of working (among other things). Although the court acknowledged that his migraines arguably affected his work performance, it ultimately rejected his claims because he conceded that the migraines were related to the stress caused by working under his direct supervisors, and he believed that he could perform the same job if he were transferred to a different location or worked under different supervisors. Therefore, the court ruled in favor of the employer explaining, “where a plaintiff’s condition leaves him unable to perform only a single, specific job, he has failed to establish a substantial impairment to his major life activity of working.”
In reaching this conclusion, the Second Circuit noted that every other federal appellate court that has addressed this question (which includes the First, Sixth, Seventh, Tenth, and the D.C. Circuits) has come to the same conclusion, holding that Congress’s amendment to the ADA did not change the fact that “a plaintiff alleging a work-related disability must show that his condition precludes him from working in a class or broad range of jobs.” For example, in June 2019, the Sixth Circuit held that a worker’s neck injury and related work restrictions did not qualify as a disability under the ADA because the plaintiff was only able to show that the injury kept him from working in a specific role, which does not satisfy the requirements under the ADA. Following that same logic, the Second Circuit held that because Mr. Woolf did not attempt to show that his work-induced migraines substantially limited his ability to work in a class or broad range of job, he did not have a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA.
Because the ADA has a broad, inclusive definition of the term “disability,” particularly after the passage of the ADA Amendments Act in 2008, employers are often quick to accept an employee’s claim that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the statute. Although this case does not necessarily provide a concrete test for employers to use, it does highlight the fact that not all conditions qualify as a disability and that poor job performance can (and should) be appropriately addressed. With that said, employers also should remember that some state and local laws provide even broader protection than the ADA, so employers should tread carefully and consult with counsel when making employment decision that could implicate these issues. Further, when working with employees who request accommodations due to conditions that are not self-evident, like migraines, employers should require the employees to provide medical documentation that substantiates the severity of their condition so that they can better assess whether an accommodation is necessary and whether it can be reasonably provided.