Ninth Circuit Court Finds that Reading is a Major Life Activity Under the ADA and Lowers Threshold for ADA Trials

Volume 4, Issue 8
July 22, 2005

As a matter of first impression, the Ninth Circuit Court recently decided that reading is a major life activity within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA"), which prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals because of a disability. A disability covered by the ADA is an impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual.

The case involved Matthew Head, who was once employed by Glacier Northwest Inc. ("Glacier") as a barge off-loader. In early 2001, Head was diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder. Head informed Glacier of the diagnosis and was subsequently allowed to take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. When Head returned to work in May 2001, he was restricted, according to his doctor's instructions, from working more than twelve hours per day or more than forty-eight hours per week and he was limited to working only day shift, as opposed to the graveyard shift that he worked previously. On June 29, 2001, Head was discharged after a loader that he was operating became stuck in the mud in violation of the company's equipment abuse policy. Head challenged his discharge claiming that it was due to discrimination and retaliation prohibited under the ADA and Oregon state law.

In support of his claim that he was a qualified individual with a disability, Head alleged that his mental condition substantially impaired he ability to sleep, interact with others, think and read. With respect to reading, Head claimed that he could only read for three to five minutes at a time before "things just got jumbled" and he would have to stop. The Ninth Circuit Court noted that at least one other circuit court, the Second Circuit Court, has found that reading is a major life activity. In concluding that reading is a major life activity, the Court reasoned that reading is central to most people's daily lives and is necessary in many instances to perform other major life activities such as caring for oneself, learning and working.

This decision illustrates the continued expansion of accepted list of major life activities that can be substantially limited by a physical or mental impairment and consequently expands the class of employees that will be deemed to be disabled under the ADA. Of additional concern for employers is the Ninth Circuit Court's clarification as to the type of evidence necessary to require a trial in an ADA discrimination case. The court concluded that comparative or medical evidence is not necessary to create a genuine dispute as to whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity requiring a trial. Rather, the court concluded that a plaintiff's own testimony as to his limitations can be enough to require a trial on this issue.

The full decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Head v. Glacier Northwest, Inc., --- F.3d ---, No. 03-35567, 2005 WL 1560358 at *1 (9th Cir. July 6, 2005) is available at:

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