Third Cir. Rules that Side Effects from Treatment May Be an ADA Impairment

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that side effects from medical treatment may constitute an impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). The 3d Circuit’s decision in Sulima v. Tobyhanna Army Depot is clear that, under limited circumstances an employee-plaintiff may have a cause of action under the ADA if he can prove that the effects of medical treatment are truly disabling, even if the underlying condition is not.


The employee-plaintiff worked for Defense Support Services, a defense contractor which provided workers at the Tobyhanna Army Depot. The employee was morbidly obese and suffers from sleep apnea. At the time, the employee was taking weight-loss and related medications which caused him to take frequent restroom breaks. When asked about the frequent breaks, the employee told his supervisor that they were the result of his medication. He later provided his supervisor with a doctor’s note, which stated that the employee may need to use the restroom frequently due to a “gastrointestinal disorder.” The employee told his supervisor that he was not sure how long he would need the medication and that he was going to find out if he could take an alternative medication.

After employee continued to take frequent restroom breaks (some days for a total of two hours during his shift), a supervisor asked that he be transferred to a different work area. When he found out about the transfer, the employee submitted another note from his treating physician, which indicated that his mediation had been changed and that he no longer needed frequent restroom breaks. The decision was made to transfer him anyway but there were no available positions at the Army Depot and the employee accepted a voluntary layoff.  He later filed a claim in federal court, alleging violations under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

[read on to learn how the Third Circuit ruled. . . ]

The Court’s Decision

To prove a case under the ADA, a plaintiff must show: (1) that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (2) that he is otherwise qualified for the job, with our without reasonable accommodations, and (3) that he was subjected to an adverse employment decision as a result of the alleged discrimination. In general, an individual is disabled if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

In this decision, the Court agreed that side effects of medical treatment may, by themselves, constitute an impairment under the ADA. However, this category of disability must be very limited, since the claim of impairment is based solely on a condition resulting from medical treatment, and not the underlying health problem.

In order to succeed on this limited claim, an employee-plaintiff must be able to prove that: (1) the treatment is required in the “prudent judgment” of a medical professional, (2) the treatment is not just an “attractive option,” and (3) the treatment is not required solely in anticipation of an impairment resulting from the plaintiff’s voluntary choice. Thus, it is not enough for a plaintiff to only show that the potentially disabling medication or course of treatment was recommended by a medical professional. A plaintiff must also be able to prove that there is not an alternative that is equally effective and also lacks the allegedly disabling side effects.

In its decision, the Court found in favor of the employer under all of the employee’s theories. First, as explained above, the Court held that because the employee did not demonstrate that the medications which were causing his problems were medically necessary, their side effects cannot be considered impairments under the ADA. Second, the Court held that there was no evidence to show that the employers regarded the plaintiff as disabled. Because the employee clearly specified to his supervisors that his alleged disability was the result of his medical treatment, and he was willing to change is treatment, there was no evidence to support his claim that his employer regarded him as disabled. Finally, there was no evidence that the employee had a good-faith belief that he regarded himself as disabled. the employee argued that the note from his treating physician was the equivalent of a request for an accommodation, and after he submitted the note he was wrongfully transferred and laid off. Although the ADA prohibits discrimination against an employee who requests an accommodation, there was no evidence indicating that the employee believed his gastrointestinal disorder was forever disabling.

Bottom Line

The Court’s decision is important because it has established the foundation for a limited category of ADA claims. While this decision does open the door to claims that side effects from medical treatment are independent disabling, it is likely that this new category of claims will be very limited. The burden of proof for such claims remains high, since side effects alone cannot sustain such claims. As the Court aptly pointed out, “The concept of disability connotes an involuntary condition, and if one can alter or remove the impairment through an equally efficacious course of treatment, it should not be considered disabling.”

Sulima v. Tobyhanna Army Depot, No. 04-4684 (3d Cir. April 12, 2010).

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