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Am I Legally "Disabled" if I Have a Heart Attack?

There is some confusion about what constitutes disability discrimination in New York. Simply having a serious medical condition does not make you disabled for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Rather, the ADA requires proof that your condition “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” For example, having a heart attack does not automatically qualify you as disabled. If your heart attack was the result of a degenerative heart condition that substantially limits a life activity, however, then that would be a disability.

Judge Rules Employee Fired Due to Poor Performance, Not Disability

A medical condition also does not prevent an employer from firing an employee for poor performance. Here is a recent example taken from here in New York City. In this case, a service technician sued his former employer, a television and internet provider, alleging disability discrimination under the ADA.

The plaintiff's primary job function was to make field visits to customers and resolve open complaint “tickets.” According to the defendant, the plaintiff received a series of poor performance evaluations in this role. For instance, in one review a supervisor said the plaintiff was closing tickets at a rate that was lower than specified by “Departmental guidelines.” Two years later, another performance review noted the plaintiff “should be able to accomplish more in his day based on his workload and responsibilities.” Two years after that, the supervisor said the plaintiff “has the fewest tickets closed for the entire group.”

Eventually, the defendant put the plaintiff on a 30-day “Action Plan,” effectively a form of probation. When the plaintiff's performance did not improve to the defendant's satisfaction, he was terminated.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the company for disability discrimination. The lawsuit alleged that in September 2015–five months before he was fired–the plaintiff suffered a heart attack. The plaintiff thereafter took several weeks of medical leave, and returned to work under certain medical restrictions. Upon his return, the plaintiff sought an accommodation under the ADA “to avoid heavy lifting.” The defendant agreed to this request, providing another employee to assist the plaintiff and allowing the plaintiff to perform his service calls remotely whenever possible.

Based on all this evidence, the judge granted summary judgment to the defendant and dismissed the case. At the outset, the judge said she had “serious reservations” as to whether the plaintiff was actually disabled for purposes of the ADA. Although the plaintiff pointed to his 2015 heart attack and other prior unrelated injuries, the judge said his court filings make “virtually no effort to demonstrate how or why any of those injuries 'substantially limit[] one or more major life activities',” as required by the ADA. Ultimately, the burden is on the plaintiff to prove the existence of a disability, not for the Court to infer one.

Even assuming the plaintiff is disabled, the judge said the defendant “provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for plaintiff's ultimate termination–namely, his deficient job performance.”

Speak with a New York Disability Discrimination Lawyer Today

Disability discrimination is a real problem for many New Yorkers. Do not think you can just show up in court, claim a disability, and assume the judge will find your employer liable. You need to be build a credible case based on actual evidence and a careful understanding of the law. An experienced New York employment law attorney can help you in these areas. Contact the Law Offices of White, Nisar & Hilferty, LLP, today if you need help investigating or pursuing a disability discrimination claim.

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