On June 27, the Iowa Supreme Court decided in Goodpaster v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., that it will look to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities) Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213, when interpreting the meaning “disability” under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (“ICRA”).
The ICRA contains a circular definition of “disability”: a disability is “the physical or mental condition of a person which constitutes a substantial disability.” Iowa Code § 216.2(5). The Iowa legislature left it to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (“ICRC”) to promulgate regulations to further define this term. The ICRC basically adopted the ADA definition of “disability” in passing the regulations: a person has an actual disability under the ICRA if the person “has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
Congress amended the ADA in 2008 to require courts to apply the “substantially limits a major life activity” test broadly to cases under the ADA. The goal was to include more employees under the definition of “disabled.” In particular, the ADAAA overturned Sutton v. United Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999) (holding courts must consider corrective measures to decide whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity) and Toyota Motor Mfg. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002) (holding “substantially limits a major life activity” should be interpreted strictly to preclude minor impairments). The Iowa legislature has not amended the ICRA to include any language similar to the ADAAA. However, the ICRC applies the ADAAA to disability cases under the ICRA.
This leads to the case at issue. The plaintiff, John Goodpaster, has multiple sclerosis. He suffers “flare ups” 5-10 times per year, during which times he experiences vision impairment and loss of control and strength in his arms and legs. Schwan’s employed Goodpaster as a customer services manager, which requires Goodpaster to drive a delivery truck to the homes of customers. Schwan’s terminated Goodpaster for poor sales. Goodpaster sued Schwan’s alleging he was disabled under the ICRA and Schwan’s should have accommodated his occasional vision and limb impairments by having another employee ride along with him or picking him up when he had a flare-up. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Schwan’s, holding Goodpaster was not “disabled” under the ICRA.
On appeal, Goodpaster argued the ADAAA requires Iowa to interpret the ICRA to include multiple sclerosis as a disability. In a 5-2 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court stated it is not bound by the language of federal statutes when interpreting the ICRA. Nevertheless, the Court held it was free to look at the ADAAA “to help establish the framework to analyze claims and otherwise apply our statute.” The Court next examined multiple federal ADA decisions issued before Sutton and Toyota in which courts found various symptoms of multiple sclerosis to be substantially limiting of certain major life activities. Broadly interpreting the ICRA, the Court held Goodpaster raised a fact issue on whether his condition substantially limited “one or more of his major life activities.” Curiously, the Court was able to come to this conclusion without actually analyzing which major life activities were impacted. In a footnote, the Court states that Goodpaster raised a fact issue on the major life activities of walking and working without stating how his multiple sclerosis actually impacts those activities. The Court reversed the summary judgment and remanded the case.
The dissent points out that this case is nearly identical to Brunker v. Schwan’s Home Service, 583 F.3d 1004 (7th Cir. 2009), decided after the amendments to the ADA became effective. In Brunker, a customer services manager with multiple sclerosis involving sometimes daily dizziness episodes alleged Schwan’s terminated him in violation of the ADAAA. The Seventh Circuit concluded Brunker was not disabled and affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. The Goodpaster dissent also argued that “working” is the only major life activity that should be used in the disability analysis. Under previous ADA and Iowa case law, a person who is only unable to perform a particular job is not substantially limited in the major life activity of working. See Probasco v. ICRC, 420 N.W.2d 432, 436 (Iowa 1988). In this case, Goodpaster took another job as a laborer and has not shown that he is prohibited from working a broad range of jobs.
Going forward, when deciding disability discrimination cases under the ICRA, Iowa courts will be free to pick and choose among all the federal cases interpreting the ADA since the Act passed in 1991 (except of course Sutton, Toyota, and their progeny). Practically, this means the ADAAA’s broad expansion of “disability” is heading for Iowa. Only time will tell whether this also means an increase in the number of civil rights complaints and lawsuits. Last year, the ICRC reported a 25% increase in disability complaints.