Side Effects of Medication Can Constitute a Disability under the ADA

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In a recent federal employment law decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that side effects of medication or other medical treatment can constitute an impairment within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a federal law which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because they are disabled.

To be protected by the ADA, an employee must prove he has a disability, as defined by the statute. Usually, an employee proves he is disabled by showing that his disability substantially limits his ability to perform a major life activity. Major life activities include caring for yourself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

In Sulima v. Tobyhanna Army Depot, the Third Circuit ruled that employees can also prove they are disabled by showing that the effects of their medication or other medical treatment substantially impair a major life activity.

Ed Sulima, the plaintiff in Sulima, is morbidly obese and suffers from sleep apnea. As a result of his disabilities, he took weight loss medication prescribed by his doctor. However, the medicine caused him gastrointestinal difficulties which made it necessary for him to take long and frequent bathroom breaks.

Mr. Sulima’s supervisor noticed him leaving his desk frequently, and questioned him after he was away from his workstation for a total of two hours during a single work shift. Mr. Sulima explained his time away from his desk was due to a side effect of his medication. The next day, he provided a doctor’s note confirming he needed to use the restroom frequently due to a gastrointestinal disorder.

Six weeks later, Mr. Sulima was informed that he was being transferred to a different work area. He then brought in another doctor’s note, which indicated that he had changed medications and no longer needed long breaks.

However, the company still decided to transfer Mr. Sulima, even though there were no other work areas available. Three days later, Mr. Sulima accepted a voluntary layoff. He later filed a lawsuit against his employer, claiming his employer forced him to accept a layoff because he is disabled.

The Third Circuit found that, under the circumstances, Mr. Sulima’s morbid obesity and sleep apnea were not disabilities under the ADA. As a result, it had to decide whether he could be considered disabled as a result of the gastrointestinal difficulties caused by his medication.

The Third Circuit ruled that an employee who claims he is disabled as a result of his medication or other medical treatment must prove that:

  1. the medication or treatment is required in the “prudent judgment” of his medical profession;
  2. there is no available alternative that is equally effective and lacks similarly disabling side effects; and
  3. the treatment is not solely required for an impairment resulting from the employee’s voluntary choices.

Applying this standard, the court found Mr. Sulima did not meet this standard because he did not show that his weight loss medication was required by his doctor. The Court relied on evidence that Mr. Sulima’s doctor testified he would have recommended Mr. Sulima stop taking the mediation if he had complained to him about the side effects.

It should be noted that, in Sulima, the Third Circuit interpreted the ADA before it was amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. The ADA Amendments Act only applies to disability discrimination claims based on events that occurred on or after January 1, 2009.

It is likely the Court would have applied the same test in a case brought under the ADA Amendments Act. However, since the amendment significantly broadened the definition of a disability under the ADA, the Court might have reached a different conclusion if Mr. Sulima had been fired on or after January 1, 2009.

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