EEOC Releases Final Regulations Significantly Expanding Coverage Under The Americans With Disabilities Act

Last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the "EEOC") released its final Regulations to Implement the Equal Employment Provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as Amended (the "Final Regulations"), and accompanying Interpretive Guidance. The Final Regulations confirm and amplify the expanded Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") coverage contemplated by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (the "ADAAA").

The ADAAA, which became effective on January 1, 2009, amended the language of the original ADA, substantially expanding the statute's coverage. Among its many new provisions, the ADAAA granted the EEOC broad rulemaking authority to interpret the meaning of the term "disability" and to issue updated regulations interpreting the ADA.

Over a year ago, the EEOC proposed new regulations that included significant changes from the former ADA regulations. The far reaching proposals provoked over 600 written comments from members of the public, civil rights groups, employers, and professional organizations. After more than a year, the EEOC has now released the Final Regulations, which will take effect on May 24, 2011.

Together with the text of the ADAAA, the Final Regulations make sweeping changes to disability law as applied to the American workplace. They dramatically expand the proportion of the population that will qualify for ADA coverage, and thereby effectively impose additional obligations on employers.

The Final Regulations Reinforce the ADAAA's Expansive Definition of "Disability"

The Final Regulations emphasize that the definition of the term "disability" is to be construed broadly. To that end, they direct that the primary focus in applying the ADA should be on whether discrimination has occurred, and not on whether the employee or applicant meets the definition of an individual with a "disability." 29 C.F.R. § 1630.1(c)(4).

Like the EEOC's initial proposed regulations, the Final Regulations provide that a "disability" means: (1) having a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits" one or more of the "major life activities" of the individual; (2) having a record of such an impairment; or (3) being "regarded as" having such an impairment. The Final Regulations, however, broaden the definition of a "disability" in three key ways. First, they significantly expand the "substantially limits" standard. Second, they extend the concept of what constitutes a "major life activity."...

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