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New Fifth Circuit ADA Decision Illustrates The Pro-employee Impact Of The Amendments Congress Passed To The ADA

March 9, 2016

In 2011, Jacobs Field Services North America, Inc. offered Michael Cannon, a mechanical engineer with 20 years’ experience, a field engineer position at a Colorado mining site.

But very shortly thereafter, Jacobs rescinded the offer after learning Cannon had a rotator cuff impairment that prevented him from lifting his right arm above the shoulder. As a result, Cannon sued Jacobs under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

A federal district court judge in Houston threw out Cannon’s case on summary judgment, holding that Cannon couldn’t show a “disability” under the ADA or prove he was a “qualified individual.”

In January 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court judge’s decision, and ruled that Cannon had sufficient proved his case so as to justify a jury trial. Cannon v. Jacobs Servs. N.A., Inc., No. 15–20127, 2016 WL 157983, ___ F.3d ___ (5th Cir. Jan. 13, 2016).

The Fifth Circuit held that the district court judge erred in holding that Cannot was not “disabled” under the ADA, because the judge failed to consider the ADA post-amendments that took effect before Jacobs rescinded Cannon’s job offer. Those amendments made it much easier for an employee to demonstrate that they suffered from a “disability” as defined by the ADA. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s regulations interpreting the amended ADA state that whether an individual’s impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity “should not demand extensive analysis.” Cannon produced “ample evidence” to show he was substantially limited in lifting and reaching, which the amended ADA and EEOC regulations identify as major life activities, the appeals court said. Thus, based on the amendments, and Cannon’s proof, there was enough evidence to support a finding that he had a “disability” as defined by the ADA.

The Fifth Circuit found that the district court had also erred in holding that Cannon was not “qualified” for the job. Jacobs asserted Cannon was unable to perform essential job functions, but the court said the “record is thin” given the speed with which the company rescinded its job offer. Jacobs argued Cannon’s condition, and the medication he was taking, prevented him from driving and climbing ladders, two essential job functions. But Cannon’s evidence, which included doctor’s reports that he was being weaned off the pain medication, and a video demonstrating he could safely climb ladders, raised a jury issue as to whether he was “otherwise qualified” for the job, the court said. Consequently, the Fifth Circuit remanded the case for trial.

This case demonstrates that the ADA’s amendments make it much easier for a plaintiff to establish a “disability” under the ADA. The case also points teaches that employers must carefully evaluate whether an employee’s medical impairment renders them unqualified for a job, rather than make rash judgements based on incomplete information.

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