Why it matters: Can an employee’s inability to sit for a prolonged period of time constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act? According to a new decision from the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer is yes. Clarifying prior case law in the circuit, the unanimous federal appellate panel held that no categorical rule exists regarding an employee’s inability to sit for a long period of time – instead, each case turns on the specific factual circumstances to determine whether a disability exists.

Detailed Discussion

Carmen Parada’s job at Banco Industrial de Venezuela was largely sedentary. As a senior letters of credit specialist, she organized credit letter applications and issued credit letters – all while seated.

Six months into her job with the bank, she fell on a sidewalk and injured her back. She was diagnosed with lumbosacral and cervical sprains, and Parada’s doctors told her to avoid sitting for prolonged periods. After her requests for an ergonomic chair were denied, Parada took a leave of absence and then filed suit against the bank.

A federal court judge granted summary judgment for the bank, ruling that Parada’s inability to sit for a long period was not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

But the Second Circuit reversed, holding “that impairments that limit the ability to sit for long periods of time do not categorically fail to qualify as disabilities under the ADA.”

The panel took pains to distinguish a 1998 decision, Colwell v. Suffolk County Police Department, where the court held a police officer’s claim of an inability to sit was too vague to survive.

Although some district courts in the circuit interpreted the Colwell case as stating a per se rule that a plaintiff must be unable to sit at all to trigger ADA coverage, the panel explained the holding “is much narrower: vague statements about a plaintiff’s difficulties with ‘prolonged’ sitting, without more, will not suffice to support a finding of an ADA violation.”

Instead, the court emphasized the need in every ADA case for a fact-specific inquiry. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, tasked with implementing regulations for the statute (and listing “sitting” as a major life activity, the court noted), explained that the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity involves several factors.

“If a plaintiff offers evidence that she cannot sit for a prolonged period of time, she may well be disabled under the ADA, depending on her specific factual circumstances,” the court said. “Of course, we recognize that the inability to sit for even an abbreviated period of time is more likely to be a substantial limitation of a major life activity than is the inability to sit for prolonged periods; few people are able to sit for hours on end without genuine discomfort.”

The panel remanded the case to the district court for a multifactor inquiry to determine whether Parada’s impairment constituted a disability under the ADA.

To read the opinion in Parada v. Banco Industrial de Venezuela, click here.