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25th Anniversary of Disability Law Celebrated

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The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is taking place this week.  The measure, approved by Congress and signed into law on July 26, 1990, was intended to accomplish two objectives 1)  provide upgraded access to public facilities for disabled people; and 2) prohibit discrimination against disabled individuals in the workplace.

The former has generally been achieved in laudatory fashion. The latter, however, has faced a number of objections and obstacles over the years and still is a matter of ongoing controversy. 

The ADA, which operates at the Federal level, is supplemented in Minnesota by the anti-disability discrimination provision of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which parallels in large measure the Federal law.  At some local levels, such as the City of Minneapolis, there are specific provisions that also proscribe discrimination against the disabled, although most legal action is undertaken under the Federal law or state law. 

While the provisions of the law relating to public access have remained stable, its employment provisions have evolved over the years.  For nearly two decades and well into the 2000’s, the law was generally construed by the courts, particularly by the U.S. Supreme Court.  A series of High Court rulings, limited the scope of the measure.  That began to change in 2008, with legislation making it more “user friendly.” 

The major changes included the broadening of who qualifies for disability and enabling the courts to construe the law more favorably to employee claimants.  That aspiration however, has not always been met.  The courts have continued to construe the law somewhat rigidly, often to the dismay of employees and their advocates. 

Basically, the law requires that employers with 50 or more employees to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for employees with a qualifying disability, a condition that substantially impairs them from engaging in normal daily life.  But they must be able to perform the “essential functions” of the job.  Employees may not be entitled to a “reasonable accommodation” if doing so would not impose an “undue hardship” on the business.  This usually refers to new job assignments or scheduling disruptions.  Employers also are required to engage in “inter-active dialogue” with employees try to accommodate them. 

Minnesota Matters

There were some matters that effect employers and employees differently under the Minnesota counterpart.  The main differences include the following:

  • The state law generally applies more broadly than federal law.  This is especially true of companies with 50 or more employees.  In Minnesota, the state law applies to nearly all employers, regardless of size.
  • The statute of limitations varies:  300 days under Federal law to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), while up to a year under Minnesota law to file a claim with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) or directly commence a civil lawsuit in state district court;
  • The available damages are somewhat different.  Minnesota law allows a fine payable to the state, as well as potential for punitive damages, while both measures, attorney fees for a successful employee claimant.

Both employers and employees should keep these matters in mind as they celebrate the silver anniversary of the ADA, a measure that has brought about more fairness and equity for disabled employees.  But it also has caused some difficulties for employers in accommodating those concerns without creating undue disparity in the workplace.