NO RETROACTIVE APPLICATION OF THE ADAAA IN THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

On October 4, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit – based in Richmond, Virginia – held oral arguments on the road at the West Virginia University College of Law in Morgantown, WV.  While doing so, the Court heard, and later decided, a noteworthy Americans With Disabilities Act case, Reynolds v. American National Red Cross National Headquarters, et al. 

 

The plaintiff, Benjamin Reynolds, worked for the Greenbrier Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross in West Virginia.  Reynolds alleged that he became disabled in 2006 when he injured his back moving a baby grand piano on the job. Reynolds claimed that he was unlawfully terminated under the ADA because of his disability and also fired in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim.  He sued both the regional Chapter of the American Red Cross and the American National Red Cross.  

While the case was before the District Court, the Chapter filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Reynolds did not present sufficient evidence to prove he was disabled and, in any event, the Chapter was not an “employer” under the ADA, since it employed fewer than 15 people – the statutory threshold required to invoke the ADA.  The District Court agreed, and found that Reynolds failed to carry his burden of proving that he was “disabled.”  However, in doing so, the District Court also rejected the Chapter’s argument that it was not an “employer” under the Act, suggesting that under the law of agency, the employees from both entities could be aggregated for purposes of assessing whether the 15-employee threshold was satisfied. 

Reynolds appealed the District Court’s decision, asserting that the court erred in failing to retroactively apply the more plaintiff-friendly ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”) when it determined that he was not disabled. The Chapter filed a cross-appeal, arguing that the District Court misapplied the law of agency in finding that the Chapter and the National Red Cross could be aggregated in order to meet the 15-employee threshold required to be an “employer” under the ADA. 

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit joined several of its sister circuits in holding that the ADAAA does not apply retroactively to conduct occurring before the Act’s effective date of January 1, 2009, and ultimately held that Reynolds failed to carry his burden of producing sufficient evidence to satisfy the definition of “disabled” under the Act.  Although Reynolds claimed that he was impaired in the major life activity of “lifting,” he failed to show how he was “substantially limited” in this regard, or that his injuries were permanent or long term.  Likewise he failed to prove that he had a “record of” having a physical impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities or that he was “regarded as” disabled by his employer. 

Having found that Reynolds failed to carry his burden of proving that he was disabled under the ADA, the Court declined to address the agency issue advanced by the Chapter on appeal, finding it to be moot.  Nevertheless, it is at least clear now that the ADAAA will not be applied retroactively to cases brought within the Fourth Circuit.  While this was the common view throughout most of the country, employers in West Virginia and elsewhere in the Fourth Circuit finally have settled law on that issue.

Julie Moore is a Member in the firm’s Morgantown office. Julie focuses her practice primarily in labor and employment law. She regularly advises and counsels employers – both private and public – on various aspects of employment law, ranging from wage and hour compliance, to employee discipline and termination issues, to disability accommodation requests.
 
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