Charles Dickens and his characters lived in a pre-ADA world. Yet, those struggling with the definition of “disability” under the ADA share the same frustration as Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist: “‘If the law supposes that,’ said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, ‘the law is a ass — a idiot.’”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), a “disability” includes “a  mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual[.]” 42 U.S. C. § 12102(1)(A). The EEOC recognizes the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”) as “relevant for identifying these disorders” and “an important reference by courts.”
With the DSM’s fifth edition (“DSM-V”), the list of such qualifying disorders includes not only binge eating disorder but also caffeine withdrawal. Having lost an intra-office wager on that point, my penalty is to draft a position statement to the EEOC in an imaginary case advocating that, as a matter of law, caffeine withdrawal is not an ADA-covered disability, such that coffee-drinkers (like myself) who forego their morning joe are not entitled to an accommodation.
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Dear Investigator Mocha:
Charging Party’s asserted caffeine withdrawal fails to qualify as a disability under the ADA.
First, caffeine withdrawal is intrinsically a limited-duration phenomenon, like the sting from hitting your thumb with a hammer, or the flu. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms last less than ten days with the exception of headache, which may last twenty-one days. This is too little; The Commission’s own regulation confirms that Impairments that last only for a short period of time are typically not covered. 29 C.F.R. § 1630, Appendix.
Second, there is also neither an assertion nor evidence that this “disorder” substantially limits any major life activities. Absent proof that a “disorder” indeed limits major life activities, there is no ADA-qualified disability. Baptista v. Hartford Bd. of Educ., 427 Fed.Appx. 39, 42 (2d Cir. 2011) (“But while Baptista conclusorily alleges that his firing constituted discrimination on the basis of his alcoholism or HIV-positive status, in none of his complaints did he describe how either impairment limited any major life activity — a requirement for a condition to constitute a disability for purposes of the laws on which he relies.”).
Finally, despite its inclusion in DSM-V for medical billing purposes, it is not a disorder within the meaning of the ADA (which could have, but pointedly did not, adopt the DSM as the operative definition of its requirement of “disorder”). Within the medical community, caffeine withdrawal is not viewed as a disability:
- Psychiatrist Allen Frances: “Caffeine  withdrawal  occur[s] fairly frequently but only rarely cause[s] enough clinically significant impairment to be considered a mental disorder…We shouldn’t medicalize every aspect of life and turn everyone into a patient.”
- Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist: “The symptoms of caffeine withdrawal are transitory, they take care of themselves… It’s just a natural response to stopping caffeine, and it clears up on its own in short order.”
More importantly, the Supreme Court has repeatedly insisted that the definition of statutory terms follow dictionary definitions contemporaneous with the statute’s origin. Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., 134 S. Ct. 870 (2014) (applying 1938 definitions of the statutory term at issue in the FLSA, a statute passed in 1938, because “[i]t is a ‘fundamental canon of statutory construction’ that, ‘unless otherwise defined, words will be interpreted as taking their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning’” at the time the statute was enacted). There are, of course, no 1990 dictionaries that define “disorder” based on a listing in the DSM-V’s predecessors.
For these reasons, the EEOC should determine that this Charge is without merit.
Robert J. Anderson
Counsel for Respondent
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Prior to the 2008 amendments to the ADA, there was more room to challenge non-standard claims of disability. After those amendments, it is a more daunting proposition: a task only for those with an appreciation of Dickens’ wit and creativity? This is especially true given the influence of DSM-V. Indeed, was Dickens anticipating that volume when he also wrote in Oliver Twist that “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts”?