5.07.2012

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome May Be a Disability under the ADA

Since the passage of the ADA Amendments Act in 2008, courts have seen an increasing number of ADA discrimination claims against employers stemming from run-of-the-mill workers’ compensation claims.

The United States District Court’s holding in Gibbs v. ADS Alliance Data Systems, Inc., 2011 WL 3205779 (D. Kansas), drives home the point that many claimants with work-related injuries will now find coverage under the ADA. The plaintiff, Olivia Gibbs, was employed by ADS Alliance Data Systems, Inc. and CVS. Ms. Gibbs was injured while working for CVS. A nerve conduction study following her injury revealed carpal tunnel syndrome, which her doctor attributed to the repetitive nature of Ms. Gibbs’ sales and service representative position at Alliance. Ms. Gibbs then filed for workers’ compensation benefits.

Ms. Gibbs underwent carpal tunnel surgery on her right wrist in December 2008. She returned to work nine days later with restrictions that permitted her to work only with her left hand. Despite the work restrictions and a light duty assignment, Ms. Gibbs’ production numbers were not reduced and she was forced to use her right hand to keep up. As a result, Ms. Gibbs wrote a letter to her human resources manager requesting a different light duty assignment. Evidence in the record revealed that Alliance was frustrated with Ms. Gibbs’ requests for accommodation, and that her supervisor told her that the company was “losing money” on her.

In December 2009, Ms. Gibbs informed Alliance that she needed to have carpal tunnel surgery on her left wrist. The surgery took place and Ms. Gibbs was returned to full duty by her doctor on January 8, 2009. The following day, the Alliance HR manager observed Ms. Gibbs soliciting other employees to purchase Avon products. Ms. Gibbs denied the allegation; however, she was promptly terminated based on a violation of the company’s Solicitation and Distribution Policy.

Ms. Gibbs filed suit against Alliance and alleged that her firing violated the ADA. She claimed that Alliance terminated her based on her disability, i.e., bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and that her termination was in retaliation for her engaging in protected activity under the ADA. Alliance moved for summary judgment on both claims.

In rejecting Alliance’s motion for summary judgment, the court began by noting:

[t]he ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) has ”lowered the bar” on the disability inquiry. … While an ADA plaintiff must still show that he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A), the ADAAA has ”significantly expanded” the terms within that definition in favor of broad coverage. … “[T]he question of whether an individual’s impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis” and … the “primary object of attention in cases brought under the ADA should be whether entities covered under the ADA have complied with their obligations.”

The district court therefore held that, “After examining the evidence in the record bearing on this issue (certainly there is some evidence that plaintiff’s condition affected her ability to perform manual tasks), and keeping in mind that this inquiry is not meant to be ‘extensive’ or demanding, the court concludes that genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether plaintiff’s carpal tunnel syndrome constitutes a disability within the meaning of the ADA.”

The court rejected Alliance’s argument that its solicitation policy provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason to terminate Ms. Gibbs. “Defendant’s solicitation policy, on its face, does not contemplate termination for a violation of the policy; it states that an employee who violates this policy ‘may’ be subject to counseling.” The court noted that the decision to terminate Ms. Gibbs rather than counsel her casts doubt on reason for her termination.

The court also denied summary judgment on Ms. Gibbs’ retaliation claim. It commented, “the timing of the decision to terminate plaintiff’s employment – just 4 weeks after plaintiff requested an accommodation based on her condition – is sufficient to create genuine issues of material fact as to whether defendant’s proffered reason for terminating plaintiff’s employment was pretextual.”

This is certainly a case worth following. As developments arise, Roetzel & Andress will provide further information and guidance to assist you. Please contact any of our offices to discuss this matter further with one of our employment services attorneys.   


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