A Genetic Mutation May Constitute a Disability Under the ADA


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a genetic mutation could, in fact, qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act – the first time this issue was addressed at the federal appellate court level – although whether it did so in this case was sent back to the trial court for resolution.

Under the ADA, a disability is defined (as relevant here) as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. In Darby v. Childvine, Inc., the employee had the BRCA1 genetic mutation, which substantially increases the risk of breast, as well as other, cancer. Cancer is expressly recognized as a disability under the ADA, but, as the Sixth Circuit noted, “a genetic mutation that merely predisposes an individual to other conditions, such as cancer, is not itself a disability under the ADA.” Thus, the Sixth Circuit stated, “To qualify as a disability,… a condition must substantially limit  a  major  life  activity,  not  merely  have  the  potential  to  cause  conditions  that  do.”

In the current case, however, the employee did not point to the potential for cancer, but rather that employee’s mutation caused abnormal cell growth of precancerous cells, which she alleged to substantially limit the major life activity of normal cell growth. The Sixth Circuit found that this allegation was sufficient to state a possible claim under the ADA, but expressly stated that it was not deciding whether the employee was, in fact, substantially limited in a major life activity. That determination would need to be resolved at the trial court level with further discovery.