Unfair Precedent Ties Hands of Sympathetic Court: Why McMullin’s Case Highlights Need for ADA Restoration Act
Even some courts say that past court interpretations of the American with Disabilities Act are wrong and unfair to deaf people and people with disabilities. But even courts that are sympathetic to deaf and disability rights are saying they cannot judge ADA cases in a fair manner because past court interpretations “tie their hands.” They have to obey court precedent even when they think that precedent is unfair.
When even sympathetic courts rule against disabled employees, despite their own agreement that the employee has experienced discrimination, that’s when you know it’s time for a legislative fix. And that’s why we need the ADA Restoration Act to force courts to define “disability” the way it was meant to be defined in the first place.
Read the story below for one example of why we need the ADA Restoration Act–even when the court is on our side. This story is taken from text prepared by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD).
Court: D. Wyoming 2004
Michael McMullin has lived and worked as a law enforcement officer in Wyoming his entire adult life. In 1973, he started his career as an officer with the Casper, Wyoming Police Department. Thirteen years into that job, Michael started experiencing symptoms of depression, including insomnia and severe sleep deprivation. After struggling with these symptoms for a few years – during which he periodically got only 2-3 hours of sleep a night – Michael became suicidal and sought medical leave and assistance. His physician referred him to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed Michael with clinical depression and prescribed medication to treat his depression, insomnia, and sleep deprivation. This treatment controlled Michael’s symptoms and he was able to return to work after five months of medical leave.
Michael stayed with the Casper Police Department for another 8 years, receiving numerous awards and commendations. In 1996, Michael left Casper and moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming where he was hired by the Capitol Police Department to provide security and protection to the Wyoming Governor and First Family. At the time of his hiring, Michael told the Capitol Police Department about his clinical depression, and asked that he not be assigned regularly to the graveyard shift. Michael successfully served as a security officer for the Governor for five years, until 2001, when he decided to apply for a job as a court security officer at the federal building in Cheyenne.
Michael again disclosed his clinical depression when he applied for employment and was assured that – as long as his depression was under control and treated with medication – it would not pose an obstacle to employment as a court security officer. Michael took the required pre-employment medical examination and answered questions about his medical history and use of medication. The examining physician found that Michael could perform the job without limitation, and Michael started working as a court security officer.
Michael performed the job without any complaints from supervisors until another doctor reviewed his medical files and decided that he was “not medically qualified” because of his depression and use of medication.(41) Michael was suspended without pay, and was then medically disqualified from working as a court security officer. Michael filed an internal appeal, providing his previous employment evaluations – including those from the State of Wyoming – and letters from doctors stating that he was fully capable of performing law enforcement duties. After his internal appeal was denied, Michael decided to challenge his medical disqualification and filed claims of disability discrimination under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
After firing him because of his clinical depression, his employers argued that Michael’s depression did not qualify as a “disability” under federal law, even though it was the admitted basis for its termination decision.
The court agreed.
Because Michael’s medication successfully managed his symptoms, his depression was not disabling enough. With regard to his history of sleep deprivation and insomnia, the court decided that
“sleep deprivation which results in a plaintiff getting only two to three hours of sleep per night is not “severe” enough to constitute a substantial limitation on the major life activity of sleeping.”
As for limitations on his ability to work, the court found that – while he had been excluded from working as a court security officer – Michael was still able to perform other jobs and, therefore, was not substantially limited in his ability to work.(43) Even though his depression had prevented him from working in the past, the “five month period in which [Michael] actually missed work in 1988 was of limited duration; this weighs against a finding of substantial limitation.”(44) Finally, his employers had not “regarded” Michael as disabled because they had only barred him from “a single job rather than a class of jobs.”(45)
Because “[t]he definition of disability is the same for claims under either the ADA or Rehabilitation Act,” the court dismissed Michael’s disability discrimination claims under both laws. As a result, his employers’ decision to rescind their initial medical clearance and to ignore Michael’s 30 years of law enforcement experience went unchallenged.
The court recognized the unfairness of this result, but said that its hands were tied by current interpretations of the law, noting that,
“[t]his is one of the rare, but not unheard of, cases in which many of the plaintiff’s claims are favored by equity, but foreclosed by the law.”
(41) McMullin v. Ashcroft, 337 F. Supp. 2d 1281, 1287, 1297 (D. Wyo. 2004).
(42) Id. at 1297.
(43) Id. at 1296.
(44) Id. at 1297.
(45) Id. at 1298.
(46) Id. at 1286.
This is the last in a series of posts about ADA court cases that help highlight the need for the ADA Restoration Act. Catch up with all the rest:
The introduction to CCD’s text is posted at ReunifyGally in the entry entitled “Real People, Real Stories: Why We Need ADA Restoration.”
Also see the first case story I posted, entitled “Thinking isn’t a Major Life Activity, Say Courts.”
The second case story is in the entry entitled “Where is Todd’s Day in Court?”
The third case story is entitled “Qualified to Work = Disqualification for ADA Protection”
The fourth is “Give Orr a Break.”
The fifth is “Doing Good Work? You’re Fired!.”
The sixth is “Why Everybody Loses Without the ADA Restoration Act.
The seventh is “A Hearing Woman, But a Deaf Story“.
PLEASE make an ASL vlog (or a written blog, if you like) on the ADA Restoration Act! If you do, I’d be delighted to link to you!
CCD has compiled an excellent collection of materials on the ADA and on the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, so it’s well worth following their link to www.c-c-d.org/ada. If you’re still new to the subject, this can help you understand why the ADA Restoration Act is critical to pass and why we should all be involved.
See my continually-updated list of blog entries from all over the web about the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, always available from the top navigation bar at “On the ADA Restoration Act.”
See examples of specific court cases that have served to undermine the spirit and intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act: click on “ADA Court Cases” under “categories” in the right-hand navigation bar.
Also, don’t miss these links: One group of activists has posted a short list of simple ideas of things you can do to help get the Restoration Act passed. And do check out the ADA Restoration Blog for updates. Or browse through background information on the ADA Restoration Act. Or contact your legislators. It is particularly important to write letters to your senators.