Note: Establishing a Substantial Limitation in Interacting with Others: A Call for Clearer Guidance from the EEOC

By Lisa M. Benrud-Larson. Full text here.

Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with the goal of providing clear and consistent standards for eliminating discrimination against persons with disabilities. To be disabled within the meaning of the ADA, a person must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. This definition seems simple on its face; however, it has resulted in much confusion for both courts and litigants. Persons with mental impairments seeking to establish a disability based on a substantial limitation in interacting with others face a particularly difficult battle. Currently, the circuits disagree on two fundamental issues: first, whether interacting with others constitutes a major life activity under the ADA; and second, if so, what constitutes a substantial limitation in this activity.

The unpredictability surrounding this issue disadvantages employers and employees alike, and it underscores the need for more concrete guidance regarding what constitutes a disability under the ADA. This Note calls for Congress to authorize the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to promulgate regulations defining when a mental impairment results in a substantial limitation in interacting with others. The regulations should create a presumptive disability scheme based on established diagnostic criteria for psychiatric disorders. Specifically, a substantial limitation in interacting with others, and hence disability, would be presumed for psychiatric diagnoses in which significant impairment in interpersonal functioning is a required characteristic of the disorder. For other psychiatric diagnoses, plaintiffs would be required to present documented medical evidence regarding the impact of their disorder on their ability to interact with others. Such concrete guidance from the EEOC would provide needed clarity to this contentious and confusing area of the law.