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July 12, 2011

Depression as a disability within the meaning of the Americans With Disabilities Act

Depression as a disability within the meaning of the Americans With Disabilities Act
Swanson v University of Cincinnati, CA6, 268 F.3d 307

Is the inability to work in a particular area due to a medical condition a disability within the meaning of the Americans With Disabilities Act [ADA]? The Circuit Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, decided that where an individual can perform satisfactorily in other areas, he or she does not suffer from a substantially limiting disability sufficient to maintain a claim of unlawful discrimination within the meaning of the ADA.

The Swanson case involved a surgical resident's claim of disability based on his inability to work in one area of medicine due to depression. Dr. John Swanson claimed that the University of Cincinnati [UC] and University Hospital [UH] unlawfully discriminated against him by failing to accommodate his disability -- major depression arising from the break-up of a significant four-year relationship, his parents' separation while he was in college, and other personal losses.

The district court ruled that Swanson's major life activities were not substantially limited by his condition because any restrictions were short-term in nature and mitigated by medication. In addition, his limitations were no greater than those experienced by the average person. As to Swanson's claim of “substantial limitation in his ability to work,” the district court noted that he did not miss any days of work; “his reviewers consistently noted he was able to work hard, even at the peak of his illness”; and his record at the University of Nevada indicated Swanson could give a “solid” performance in surgery with proper medication.

Based on these factors, the court decided that his depression had only a short-term effect on his performance and he was not substantially limited in the major life activity of working.

UH, on the other hand, contended that it did not believe Swanson was disqualified from performing a broad range of jobs, and encouraged him to switch to another medical specialty. Apparently Swanson declined to do so. In any event, the district court rejected his claim that UC and UH regarded him as disabled. Finding that Swanson was not disabled, the district court granted summary judgment to UC and UH.

To establish a prima facie case of discrimination because of disability the individual must show that he or she:

1. is an individual with a disability according to the statute;

2. is “otherwise qualified” to perform the job requirements, with or without reasonable accommodation;

3. suffered an adverse employment decision;

4. the employer knew or had reason to know of his disability; and

5. the position remained open after the adverse employment decision or the disabled individual was replaced.

The Circuit Court, agreeing with the district court, said that Swanson did not show that he could not perform all medical task due to depression, merely those associated with surgery, affirmed the lower court's dismissal of his complaint. 

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