Mesa v. City of San Antonio

The ADA Amendments Act was passed in 2008 and became effective in 2009. Only now are we seeing cases interpreting those important changes. One significant change concerns the “regarded as” claim. The old ADA protected persons who were fired because they were “regarded as” disabled. But, the old ADA also required that to merit that protection, the person had to suffer from an actual impairment. That ruling meant many persons in the early stages of an illness or impairment were not protected. Their disability simply had not progressed far enough. So, the ADA Amendments Act broadened the requirement of “regarded as” to also include persons who were simply perceived as impaired. The ADAAA removed the requirement that a person suffer from an actual impairment that limits a major life activity.

In Mesa v. City of San Antonio, No. SA-17-CV-654 (W.D. Tex. 8/16/2018), the Court addressed a critical component of this new “regarded as” claim. How serious does the impairment have to be before the impairment can become the subject of a “regarded as” claim? In Mesa, the worker suffered from a shoulder injury. He recovered from that shoulder injury within eight days. In moving for summary judgment, the employer argued that the condition was “transitory and minor.” The ADAAA provides that the protections of the “regarded as” claim do not extend to conditions which are transitory and minor. The court in Mesa first addressed the question regarding who must show that an impairment is transitory and minor. The court reviewed the pertinent regulations and found this status to be a defense, so the burden lay with the defendant to show a condition was transitory or minor. So, in moving for summary judgment, the employer must show no genuine issue of material fact regarding the status of transitory and minor.

The Act defines an impairment as one which lasts six months or longer. Mr. Mesa’s condition apparently lasted less than six months. But, what is “minor”? The court noted that the employer focused on the wrong analysis in its motion for summary judgment. The employer argued in its motion for summary judgment that there was no evidence that any person at CPS Energy, the employer, viewed Mr. Mesa’s impairment as anything but transitory and minor. That was the wrong inquiry, said the Court.

The proper question was whether the employer believed the employee had an impairment which objectively could be viewed as transitory and minor. That is, was the employer aware of an impairment, which objectively could constitute a brief illness or injury? The court was saying that the employee must show not that the employer viewed the health condition as transitory and minor, but must instead show 1) that the employer viewed the impairment as a particular diagnosis, 2) which objectively may last longer than six months or is otherwise not minor.

The court engaged in detailed review of the facts and noted that CPS Energy took actions which did show they believed the employee had a shoulder injury which persisted, even after apparent treatment. They required him to take a fitness-for-duty examination, for example, even after receiving a medical report. Management also considered requiring the employee to undergo an MRI. Management took several steps even after initial assurances of his recovery. And, as the court noted, the employee was removed from work via an ambulance when the injury first occurred. All those facts suggest an impairment which was something more than minor.So, even though the condition may have lasted less than six months, it was something more than minor.

The court then noted that shoulder injuries as a matter of course, are unpredictable. It found that the plaintiff had presented adequate evidence to show genuine issue of fact whether the injury was not “minor” and whether he had been placed on unpaid leave due to his perceived injury. See the decision here.