Last year’s Amendments to the American with Disabilities Act (“ADAAA”) were intended to expand the scope of the ADA, essentially making it easier for plaintiffs to establish that they have a disability. The Amendments provide a non-exhaustive list of “major life activities” (which, when substantially limited, give rise to a disability), including the operation of major bodily functions like the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive functions, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, special sense organs and skin, genitourinary, and cardiovascular.

In one of the first reported cases applying the ADAAA, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2009, a federal district court in Illinois held in Horgan v. Simmons that an employee who was fired after disclosing his HIV-positive status to the president of his company could pursue claims for discrimination and impermissible medical inquiry. Citing the EEOC’s proposed regulations to implement the amendments, the court held that HIV substantially limits a major life activity—the function of the immune system—and therefore constitutes a disability under the ADA. The court also held that the employer’s inquiry into the plaintiff’s medical status despite plaintiff’s repeated assurances that nothing was affecting his ability to work was an “impermissible medical inquiry” under the ADAAA, which prohibits “inquiries of an employee as to whether the employee is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of the disability, unless such examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  

The decision is a departure from earlier decisions, where courts had dismissed HIV discrimination claims by otherwise healthy men who could not show that their HIV infection had actually substantially limited one or more of their major life activities.  The amendments make clear that the immune system function is a “major life activity.” Managers and supervisors should be aware of the expanded scope of the ADAAA, and trained on best practices in handling employees with potential disabilities.