ADA & Disabilities

Michigan Court Looks to Medication in Disability Bias Claim

A Michigan employee sued her employer, alleging disability discrimination in the terms of promotions. A court of appeals heard the case and questioned whether or not the employee was actually disabled when she took her medication.depression

Background

“Kendra” worked for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). She sued the MDOT, claiming it discriminated against her because of her depression and anxiety in violation of the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (MPDCRA). The question in the case was whether Kendra was disabled as the term is defined by the MPDCRA.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, determining that although Kendra’s medical conditions may have rendered her disabled when she was not medicated, her medication ameliorated her conditions so that she was not disabled. Kendra appealed, arguing that the trial court should not have considered the mitigating effect of her medication when determining whether she was disabled.

Court’s Decision

The court noted that there was no serious dispute that depression and anxiety could cause an employee to be “disabled” for purposes of the MPDCRA. However, a diagnosis does not categorically translate to a disability under the Act.

The MPDCRA defines “disability” as, in relevant part, a determinable mental characteristic of an individual that substantially limits at least one major life activity and is unrelated to either her qualifications for her job or her ability to perform her job duties.

The definition includes actually having the characteristic, having a history of having the characteristic, or being regarded as having the characteristic. To establish a violation of the MPDCRA, an employee must demonstrate that she has a disability and has suffered discrimination as those terms are defined by the Act.

Case law from the Michigan Supreme Court establishes that courts should consider the mitigating effects of medication when deciding whether a condition is a disability. Kendra argued, however, that amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require disabilities to be evaluated without considering the mitigating effects of medication.

The court acknowledged the amendments to the ADA but clarified that an MPDCRA claim depends on the statutory language found in the MPDCRA, not on the language found in another piece of legislation from a different jurisdiction. Because the MPDCRA has not been amended like the ADA and the supreme court has not overruled its holding that the effects of medication should be considered, the effects of Kendra’s medication had to be taken into account in determining her disability status.

The court determined that Kendra’s depression and anxiety went into remission with the use of medication. Therefore, she was not disabled within the meaning of the MPDCRA.

Bottom Line

This case turned out well for the employer, but there could have easily been a different outcome. For whatever reason, Kendra’s attorney did not allege a violation of the ADA. Had Kendra asserted an ADA claim, the court’s analysis would have turned on her medical condition as it stood untreated. The court certainly would not have conducted the simple analysis it employed in evaluating her MPDCRA claim.

William E. Altman, an editor of Michigan Employment Law Letter, can be reached at waltman@murraylawpc.com.