Employment-Tenth Circuit Rules That Migraine Headaches Are Not An ADA Disability

After Congress expanded the American With Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) in 2008, it has been thought that almost any medical problem of an employee would be treated as a disability under the ADA. But in Allen v. SouthCrest Hospital, No. 11-5016 (10th Cir. 2011), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) ruled that migraine headaches are not an ADA disability. Here is what happened.

In this case, the plaintiff, Alethia Allen (“Allen”), worked as a medical assistant for the defendant, SouthCrest Hospital (“SouthCrest”). Her duties involved working with patients. While employed at SouthCrest, Allen began to experience migraine headaches. The headaches occurred several times per week, but she did not suffer from them on a daily basis. The migraines varied in severity. At times she could keep working. At other times she could not. Allen was eventually fired. She subsequently filed this suit, which included an ADA claim for failure to accommodate and wrongful termination. The district court granted summary judgment against her, and she appealed. The question for the Court: was Allen disabled for ADA purposes?

In analyzing the case, the Court said that a person is “disabled” under the ADA if she suffers from “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” ( citing 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A)). To satisfy this definition, a plaintiff must (1) have a recognized impairment, (2) identify one or more appropriate major life activities, and (3) show the impairment substantially limits one or more of those activities. As to condition (2), Allen contended that her migraines substantially limit the major life activities of “working” and “caring for herself.” The issue then becomes whether condition (3) is met- specifically, whether Allen’s migraine headaches substantially limited her ability to perform the foregoing activities.

As to Allen’s ability to care for herself, the Court said that, taken as a whole, the evidence showed that Allen’s migraines, when active and treated with medication, did not permit her to perform activities to care for herself in the evenings and compelled her to go to sleep instead. But the Court further said that it was her burden to make more than a conclusory showing that she was substantially limited in the major life activity of caring for herself as compared to the average person in the general population. She failed to do this. Allen presented no evidence concerning such factors as how much earlier she went to bed than usual, which specific activities of caring for herself she was forced to forego as the result of going to bed early, how long she slept after taking her medication, what time she woke up the next day, whether it was possible for her to complete the activities of caring for herself the next morning that she had neglected the previous evening, or how her difficulties in caring for herself on days she had a migraine compared to her usual routine of evening self-care. In sum, Allen’s claim of a substantial limitation in the major life activity of caring for herself was not sufficiently developed or supported by the evidence.

As to Allen’s ability to work, Allen admitted that her condition affected her work only for one particular doctor at SouthCrest (there were others she could have worked for). Under case law, to be disabled in the major activity of working, an employee must be significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities. Work for a single physician does not qualify as a class or broad range of jobs. This obtains even under the amendments made to the ADA in 2008 and the underlying regulations that became effective in 2011. Thus, Allen failed to show that her migraines substantially limited her major life activity of work.

Based on the above, the Court concluded that condition (3) was not met, and therefore Allen was not disabled for ADA purposes. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s summary judgment against Allen. Thought: reading this case, the result might have been different if the complaint was more detailed, or if a different job setting was involved. The case should not lead one to dismiss the breadth and implications of the 2008 amendments to the ADA.