Employee’s Own Testimony About Their Medical Condition May Be Sufficient Evidence To Establish The Disability.

Randi Klein Hyatt
Randi Klein Hyatt
10/07/2022

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently held a plaintiff’s own testimony about his medical condition and the restrictions/limitations he experienced was sufficient on its own for a jury to be able to decide if the individual was disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In Sugg v. City of Sunrise, Mr. Sugg was the Chief Electrical Inspector for the City.  Shortly into his employment, he suffered a heart attack.  After just a few weeks away from work, he returned and noticed he was being treated differently.  After a few more weeks on the job, including a demotion and an altercation, Sugg was terminated. 

He sued his former employer for, among other things, disability discrimination under the ADA.  The trial court dismissed the disability discrimination claim in part because it found that Sugg had failed to provide sufficient evidence that he was disabled under the ADA and thus was not entitled to its protections.  In making that ruling, the trial court relied exclusively on Sugg’s doctors’ declarations about his medical condition, which the trial court ruled were too “conclusory” to establish that Sugg had a disability. 

While the appellate court agreed his doctors’ declarations were conclusory (and therefore not helpful in determining whether . Sugg had a disability), the appellate court held the trial court erred when it failed to consider Mr. Sugg’s own testimony and declarations about his disability and requests for reasonable accommodations.

Noting the ADA directs that “disability” be “construed in favor of broad coverage,” the court recognized that while conclusory allegations by a plaintiff or his/her doctor will not suffice, the court also recognized that a diagnosis based solely on self-described complaints of subjective pain could qualify as a disabling impairment under the ADA.  Noting that the ADA regulations do not require medical evidence to establish a disability, the court concluded that a plaintiff’s own testimony is sufficient where it would permit a jury to reasonably determine that the plaintiff was disabled under the ADA. 

In the case at hand, Sugg had alleged enough nonconclusory information (he could not lift anything; he could only go in 15 minute spurts before having to catch his breath) that a jury could reasonably find his heart disease had substantially limited the major life activities of lifting and walking.  Of course, if Sugg had alleged information that contradicted his doctor’s statements the result would likely be different.

Regardless, employers should still request medical documentation in instances when it would be helpful to evaluate whether the employee is disabled and/or in need of reasonable accommodation.  Employers should , however, also be mindful of the information an employee shares on that condition, and not rely exclusively on that of the medical providers.

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