Definition of "Disability" under the Rehabilitation Act

A recent case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit highlighted the standard for what constitutes a "disability" under the Rehabilitation Act. In Rolland v. U.S. Postal Service, No. 06-2536 (1st Cir. June 28, 2007), the court of appeals found that because the employee failed to establish that he was disabled, he was not subject to protections under the Rehabilitation Act and could not proceed with his case. There are many federal laws that define "disability," but the Rolland case emphasized that the Rehabilitation Act's definition of disability is the most stringent.

In 1994, while working as a forklift operator, the employee suffered an on-the-job injury resulting in a ruptured disc. Not long after the employee returned to work, he experienced substantial pain and limitation of movement. The Postal Service assigned the employee to a light-duty position as a forklift operator's assistant. In 1997, the Postal Service reviewed the employee's physical status and offered him a permanent "rehabilitation position" as a mail handler. The employee obtained the "rehabilitation position" through the Postal Service's workers' compensation program.

In 2002, the employee filed a complaint of disability discrimination against the Postal Service, alleging that he was denied overtime hours. An EEOC administrative judge denied the employee's claim. The EEOC Office of Federal Operations upheld the administrative judge's decision. Thereafter, the employee filed a Rehabilitation Act complaint in federal district court. The trial judge at district court decided that the employee was not disabled within the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the trial judge's decision.

The court of appeals rejected the employee's primary argument as to why he was "disabled" under the Rehabilitation Act. The employee contended that he was "disabled" because the Postal Service had assigned him to a "rehab job" in accordance with the Federal Employees Compensation Act ("FECA"). Unfortunately for the employee, being deemed "disabled" under the FECA did not necessarily mean that he was "disabled" under the Rehabilitation Act.

Indeed, the court of appeals pointed out that the definition of "disability" under the Rehabilitation Act is the "more demanding" and "exacting" than the definition under FECA. Additionally, since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 ("ADA"), the private sector equivalent to the Rehabilitation Act, the U.S. Supreme Court has further narrowed the definition of "disabled." To be "disabled" under the Rehabilitation Act, the employee must have had an impairment that substantially limited him in a major life activity. Although the employee had difficulty bending, stooping, twisting, and sitting for extended periods of time, he could nonetheless mow his yard, vacuum, walk, lift up to 20 pounds, and perform household chores such as laundry, mowing the lawn, and load the dishwasher. The employee could also perform all the duties of his job as a mail sorter. Therefore, the court of appeals decided that his impairment (back pain) did not "substantially limit" him in a major life activity.

This case points out that being designated as "disabled" under one statute does not necessarily satisfy the definition of "disabled" under the Rehabilitation Act. If an employee satisfies the definition of "disabled" for Social Security benefits, workers compensation, veterans benefits, or disability retirement from the Office of Personnel Management, there is no guarantee that the employee will be covered under the Rehabilitation Act. In addition to having a more "exacting" definition of "disabled" in the text of the statute, the federal courts have imposed further restrictions on who is "disabled." In the last Congress, legislators attempted to amend the ADA and expand the definition of "disability" in the ADA Restoration Act. Although the reform failed to progress through Congress, it is anticipated that sponsors in the current Congress will reintroduce the ADA Restoration Act in this legislative session.