Today, my colleague Jonathan Orleans makes a return engagement to the blog, updating us on a decision released by the District Court of Connecticut yesterday that has relevance to various ADA cases in the state.  The Defendant was successfully represented by another colleague of mine here at the firm, Marcy Stovall.  

A decision issued yesterday by a federal district court in Connecticut provides some useful guidance on the distinction, for purposes of the Americans With Disabilities Act, between impairments that merely affect major life activities and those that substantially limit such activities. 

The decision by Judge Janet Arterton also clarifies that in determining whether the plaintiff is substantially limited in important life activities, the plaintiff is compared to “most people,” not to any subgroup of the general population.

In Rumbin v. Association of American Medical Colleges (download here), the plaintiff sought various accommodations, including extra time, to take the Medical College Admission Test (the “MCAT”), claiming to be disabled because he was severely limited in the major life activity of seeing. 

He submitted to the Association, which administers the MCAT, reports from his treating ophthalmologist and a behavioral optometrist who said that he had various vision-related impairments, including glaucoma, ocular misalignment, convergence insufficiency, binocular dysfunction, and oculomotor dysfunction. 

The Association nonetheless denied his request for accommodation after having his application reviewed by its own expert, the Executive Director of the National Board of Examiners in Optometry, who found the reports of plaintiff’s doctors unconvincing on a variety of grounds. 

(Interestingly, the Association presented evidence at trial that the MCAT is intentionally designed to be arduous and time-pressured, and that it is reluctant to grant requests for extra time because studies show that scores on tests where extra time is given are not equivalent to scores on tests using the standard timing.) 

The Defendant was also represented by Robert Burgoyne of Fulbright & Jaworski in Washington, DC.

Upon reconsideration, the Association again denied the request for accommodations. The plaintiff then sued, seeking among other things an injunction requiring the Association to give him three days to take the MCAT, and $15 million in damages for past and future lost earnings. In pretrial proceedings, the court dismissed all of the plaintiff’s claims except for his claim for injunctive relief.

After a bench trial, Judge Arterton issued her decision in favor of the Defendant. In doing so, she noted that there was no dispute that the plaintiff had vision impairments, and that the activities he claimed were affected by those impairments – seeing, learning, and reading – are major life activities. 

But, she observed, citing a 1998 Second Circuit decision, not every impaired person is disabled.  To be disabled under the ADA, a person must be substantially limited in major life activities in comparison to most people. 

In the specific circumstances of the case, the relevant comparison was not with other takers of the MCAT or other future doctors, but with members of the general population. And the plaintiff did not show that he was substantially limited in his ability to see, learn, and/or read in comparison to the general population. With respect to certain of his impairments – for example, his convergence insufficiency – his functioning was in normal range. With respect to others – for example, his reading ability – his doctors failed to provide any data comparing the plaintiff’s abilities to the general population. And although plaintiff testified that he struggled with certain everyday tasks that involved reading small print and using computer screens, he also had a record of many accomplishments in school and at work that required him to read and see. 

The court concluded that the plaintiff had failed to meet his burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was substantially limited and therefore disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

Lawyers for employees in ADA cases should take from this case a recognition that it is crucially important to present objective evidence showing that the plaintiff is substantially limited in important life activities as compared to the general population. Defense counsel should be reminded that diagnostic categories and ominously-named impairments do not necessarily equate to disability under the law.