Can Employee’s Own Testimony Support Their Disability?
According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the answer is “Yes.” But that answer comes with caveats.
The ADA. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees with disabilities; however, not every impairment constitutes a disability. Employers are entitled to evidence to support the disability. Most often, when the disability is not obvious, employers request medical evidence from the employee’s doctor to identify the employee’s limitations and possible accommodations. And that evidence must be sufficiently specific – conclusory statements, even by medical professionals, are insufficient to establish a disability under the ADA. Rather, they must provide specific facts to support their medical conclusions.
Background of the Case. In Sugg v. City of Sunrise, the employee had a heart attack. Following his return to work, he was demoted and eventually terminated. He sued for disability discrimination under the ADA. The employee’s doctors provided declarations: one that he “would have issues” with several major life activities and the other that he would have “substantial limitations” in those activities without explaining how or the degree to which he was substantially limited in them. The employer argued that the employee failed to produce sufficient evidence that he was disabled, in that his doctors’ declarations were too conclusory and the employee’s own testimony about his limitations could not be used to support a finding of disability.
The Court’s Opinion. While the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the doctors’ notes here were so conclusory that they did not support a finding of disability, it further noted that, because the ADA regulations “do not require medical evidence to establish disability, we conclude that a plaintiff’s own testimony is sufficient where it would allow a jury to reasonably determine that the plaintiff was disabled under the ADA.” The Eleventh Circuit asserted that the employee’s own testimony could not be conclusory. Here, however, it found the employee’s testimony sufficiently specific – that he could not lift “anything” and could only “go like 15 minutes spurts” before having to stop to catch his breath – such that a jury could find his heart disease substantially limited the major life activities of lifting and walking.
Lessons for Employers. Does this case mean that an employee can always ignore a request for information from their doctor? Of course not – but the employer should be mindful of when and how much information to request. It would not be appropriate to request information if the disability is obvious. But otherwise, as the Job Accommodation Network (part of the U.S. Department of Labor) states, in its Interactive Process resource, “Under the ADA, when an employee requests an accommodation and the disability and need for accommodation are not obvious, then the employer can request medical documentation to help determine whether the employee has a disability and needs the requested accommodation and information to help process the accommodation request.” But what the employer should keep in mind is that it should not wholly ignore the employee’s own testimony in favor of medical evidence. It is one thing if the employee’s own doctor offers medical evidence that contradicts the employee’s self-serving testimony; it is another if the employee’s testimony augments or clarifies general information from the doctor.