The ADA defines “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or being “regarded” as having such impairment. In order to support a “regarded as” claim under the ADA, an individual has to show that the perceived impairment limited a major life activity and that the limitation was “substantial.” The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a nurse’s claim that her employer viewed her as unable to perform job duties as a treatment nurse was insufficient to show that the employer viewed her as generally unable to perform as a nurse. Winborne v. Sunshine Health Care, Inc., 5th Cir., No. 09-60755, November 17, 2010.

In 1992, Barbara Winborne began working as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) at Sunshine Rest Home. A year later, Winborne was diagnosed as suffering from transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). When she experienced a TIA, Winborne had difficulty concentrating, often experiencing dizziness, temporary loss of awareness, and severe headaches. In order to control the attacks, Winborne took mediation, and had no problems performing her job duties. In 2005, she informed the Director of Nursing for Sunshine Health Care(SHC) that she suffered from the TIAs.

On July 8, 2005, during her rounds through the facility, Winborne checked on an elderly dementia patient, who required restraints because she was prone to agitation. Thirty minutes later, when Winborne returned to the room, she found the patient hanging out of the bed with the bed rails lowered, and held only by her pelvic restraints. The patient was rushed to the hospital and later was returned to the facility.

The incident was reported to the Mississippi Department of Health (MDOH), as required by law, and an investigation was done, during which Winborne was suspended from her employment. Based upon its investigation, the MDOH found “abuse and neglect” of the patient. SHC discharged Winborne, based on its policy that requires termination of an employee found guilty of patient neglect. Winborne sued SHC, alleging that she was fired in violation of the ADA, and because SHC regarded her as disabled. A jury awarded her $10,000 and over $25,000 in attorney fees and costs. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed and entered judgment in favor of SHC.

In order to show that SHC regarded her as substantially limited in the major life activity of working, Winborne had to prove that SHC believed her to be significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities. Importantly, the inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working. Winborne therefore had the burden to show that her perceived impairment extended beyond her one particular job to a class of jobs or to a broad range of jobs in various classes.

The factors that a court may consider in determining whether a person is substantially limited in the major life activity of working include the job from which the individuals has been disqualified because of an impairment (or perceived impairment), and the number and types of other jobs utilizing similar training, knowledge, skills or abilities within the geographic area to which the individual has reasonable access. In this case, Winborne offered no evidence to show that her condition disqualified her from other nursing positions or from a broad range of healthcare-related positions that did not involve patient care. She also failed to present any evidence about the numbers and types of available (or unavailable) jobs utilizing similar training within the relevant geographic area, and did not ask a single question at trial about whether SHC would have hired her in an administrative role.

Because Winborne failed to present any evidence to prove that SHC regarded her as unable to perform a class of job, or a broad range of jobs in various classes, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the trial evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to support the jury’s verdict, and revered the verdict. This holding is important to employers, who should recognize that in order to successfully defend against ADA claims, it is helpful for the employer to be able to show the availability of jobs (within a relevant geographic area) which are consistent with the plaintiff’s skills, qualifications, and abilities. While the burden of proof is on the plaintiff in a discrimination case, information of that type can help to explain to a jury that there is no perception of “disability,” because there is no perception that the plaintiff was substantially limited in the ability to work.