Employment Law Alert. Issue 62
© 2000-2001 Nixon Peabody LLP
In Sutton v. United Air Lines, 1999 U.S. LEXIS 4371 (June 22, 1999), the Supreme Court held that the determination as to whether someone was disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act “should be made with reference to measures that mitigate the individual’s impairment.” A companion case, Murphy v. United Parcel Service, 1999 U.S. LEXIS 4370 (June 22, 1999) dismissed mechanic Vaughn Murphy’s ADA claim because the medication he took to control his high blood pressure meant, according to Murphy’s physician, that he “functions normally doing everyday activities.” While these Supreme Court decisions closed off ADA access to people whose “disabilities” are moderated or eliminated by corrective measures or (as in Vaughn Murphy’s case) medication (see “Supreme Court Limits ADA Claims by Individuals with Disabilities,” November 1999 Employment Law Alert.) commentators wondered what would happen if an ADA plaintiff could correct his or her impairment but didn’t.
This open issue arose in Spradley v. Custom Campers Inc., 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14819 (D. Kan., August 19, 1999). Brian Spradley worked for Custom Campers, a manufacturer of fifth wheel recreational vehicles. He was working at a light duty maintenance job because of several prior injuries to his elbows and shoulder when, in September 1995, he suffered a seizure at work and was hospitalized. His physician could not find anything wrong and cleared Spradley to return to his light duty job without restrictions. Seven months later, however, Spradley’s physician diagnosed a generalized seizure disorder and prescribed Dilantin to reduce the likelihood of seizures. Dilantin must be taken daily to be effective. If it is discontinued or not taken regularly, it will probably cause a seizure.
Spradley’s physician again cleared him to return to his light duty job. The physician cautioned him not to drive and not to work around hazardous machinery even when taking Dilantin. Spradley ignored these restrictions and continued to drive. He also continued to work around hazardous machinery. His maintenance job required him to clean around numerous saws while they were operating as well as to clean near two large industrial compactors. The compactors were large enough that someone could fall into them.
In December 1996, fifteen months after his first seizure, Spradley suffered a second seizure at work. He blacked out and fell near the trash compactor but was not hurt. He was not taking Dilantin at the time. The likelihood of this seizure would have been reduced, but not eliminated, had Spradley been taking the prescribed Dilantin. Six days later, Custom Campers fired Spradley because of the safety risk he posed to himself and his fellow employees.
District Judge Kathryn Vratil granted summary judgment to the employer. She noted Spradley was not taking his prescribed medication at the time of either seizure. Although Spradley argued his diagnosed seizure disorder substantially limited major life activities such as performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing and working, Judge Vratil held his failure to take his prescribed medication defeated that argument. Citing to Murphy, she concluded “The Supreme Court has recently held that if a disorder can be controlled by medication or other corrective measures, it does not substantially limit a major life activity.”
Judge Vratil quickly moved on to hold, in the alternative, that even had Spradley established he had an ADA-covered disability, he would lose. He not only had frequent absences and tardinesses admittedly not connected to his seizure disorder, but he would have been injured if not killed had he fallen into the trash compactor. Spradley was therefore not “otherwise qualified.” Judge Vratil cited a Fifth Circuit decision holding that someone was not otherwise qualified “if there is a genuine substantial risk that he or she could be injured or injure others.” Finally, Spradley also lost his “regarded as disabled” ADA contention because Custom Campers regarded him as substantially limited only in the hazardous maintenance job he occupied.
Custom Campers admitted it fired Spradley because of the risk he posed to himself and others because of his seizures. Because of work restrictions following earlier worker compensation absences, Spradley’s light duty maintenance job was the only company job he could perform. Although taking the prescribed Dilantin would not necessarily eliminate seizures, it would make them “far less likely.” Thus, this was a case Spradley would have likely lost if he had taken his prescribed medication. He couldn’t be better off legally because he stubbornly refused to follow his doctor’s instructions.
There is language in Sutton which supports this result. Justice O’Connor, for the Court majority, observed that a “disability” exists only where an impairment substantially limits a major life activity and not where it “might” or “could” or “would” be substantially limiting “if mitigating measures were not taken” (emphasis added). Later, Justice O’Connor held that “the use or nonuse of a corrective device does not determine whether an individual is disabled . . .” (emphasis added).
The ADA would apply if the side effects of taking medication left some major life activity substantially limited. It would also apply under the “regarded as disabled” ADA prong if medication cured the problem but the employer wrongly regarded the employee taking the medication as unable to perform a whole range of jobs. Finally, Sutton and Murphy only involved the single life activity of working. Taking medication may substantially limit other major life activities as, for example, taking insulin to control diabetes limits the ability to travel and eat. Spradley’s quick admission that he was driving, hunting, fishing, and playing softball without any problems squashed any possibility of claiming that his daily life activities were somehow still limited by his seizure disorder condition even when he was not taking his prescribed medication.
Someone who is deliberately ignoring his or her own doctor’s instructions to take prescribed medication should not be given an advantage under the ADA over the diligent patient who is following doctor’s orders and taking prescribed medication. One can certainly speculate what might happen if the individual is not taking prescribed medication because he or she cannot afford it and whether an employer would have a reasonable accommodation duty to help make such medication available to that individual. Those cases are for another day. Brian Spradley lost his case because he didn’t take his medicine. He should have listened to his mother — and his doctor.
The foregoing has been prepared for the general information of clients and friends of the firm. It is not meant to provide legal advice with respect to any specific matter and should not be acted upon without professional counsel. If you have any questions or require and further information regarding these or other related matters, please contact your regular Nixon Peabody LLP representative.