STEFFEN v. DONAHOE (March 21, 2012)
The United States Postal Service hired Craig Steffen as a part-time mail handler in 1987. He injured his back in 1998 and returned to "light-duty" work after taking a few weeks off. He reinjured his back in May of 2003. He worked one week in July but never returned after that. His supervisor unsuccessfully attempted to get him to return to work or document his injury. In fact, he threatened to fire Steffen in early 2005. The union filed a grievance on Steffen’s behalf and the parties entered into a settlement agreement. Under the agreement, Steffen was to return to full-duty work if he was cleared by his physician and passed a fit for duty exam. If he was not able to return to work, he was to apply for disability retirement. The USPS physician concluded that Steffen was not fit for full duty work. Steffen did not return to work, but he did not file for disability retirement either. The USPS fired him in early 2006. Steffen filed suit alleging disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act. He alleged that the USPS "regarded him as" disabled. Magistrate Judge Goodstein (E.D. Wis.) granted summary judgment to the USPS. She first concluded that the 2009 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply to the claim since Steffen was fired before they were passed. Using the pre-2009 standard, she concluded that the USPS did not think that his injury limited a major life activity. Although she also concluded that the USPS' requirement that Steffen return without limitations violated the Rehabilitation Act, she concluded that Steffen was not covered by the Act. Steffen appeals.
In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Posner, Flaum, and Manion affirmed. The Court noted that Steffen, as a federal agency employee, brings his claim under the Rehabilitation Act but that the Court looked to the ADA to determine whether the Rehabilitation Act has been violated. The Court agreed with the district court that the 2009 amendments do not apply. First, Circuit authority holds that the amendments do not apply retroactively. Second, the Court rejected Steffen’s argument that, even if they do not apply, they should be viewed as persuasive authority in interpreting the pre-2009 standard. And third, the Court rejected his argument that the amendments should apply to his claim for future relief. The pre-2009 version of the statute controls since he complains of pre-2009 conduct. Under that version, the "regarded as" prong is met only if an employer believes that the employee is substantially limited in a major life activity. Prior to 2009, a major life activity was usually limited to the statutory list of "walking, seeing, hearing," etc. Steffen does not even identify which major life activity he thinks the USPS mistakenly believes is limited. In any event, he failed to prove that the USPS had such a mistaken belief. With respect to "substantially limited," the ADA defines it as unable to perform or significantly restricted. The Court rejected Steffen's argument that a single answer in a USPS representative’s deposition can establish his disability. The statement was merely that she considered him to be disabled. But having a "disability" means different things in the normal use of the word and in the ADA. Also, the representative may have an incorrect understanding of the ADA. And third, having a "disability" does not prove that Steffen suffered a substantial limitation in the major life activity. Finally, the same witness stated that she did not consider Steffen disabled under the ADA. His “regarded as disabled” claim cannot succeed. The Court turned to the argument that the USPS requirement that he return to work without any restrictions is a per se violation. Since Steffen has not established that he is disabled, he does not have standing to argue the per se violation.