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Partial Deafness Not a Disability under ADA, Federal Court Rules

  • April 5, 2013

Deafness in one ear is not a disability under the American with Disabilities Act, as amended by the ADA Amendments Act, because the plaintiff could not establish she was substantially limited in the major life activity of hearing, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has ruled in Mengel v. Reading Eagle Co., No. 11-6151 (E.D. Penn. Mar. 29, 2013). 

Background

Christine Mengel, a former copy editor and page designer at the Reading Eagle newspaper, alleged she was discriminated against by her employer on the basis of her alleged disability and gender when she was laid off during a 2009 reduction in force. The company used a matrix to evaluate seven points to determine who would be let go and Mengel had the lowest score. 

Mengel became deaf in one ear and suffered from balance problems as a result of successful surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2007. At her deposition, Mengel testified that she was still able to hear even though she was deaf in one ear, but had difficulty hearing in noisy environments. Further, she testified that her hearing loss was not a distraction and she did not mention any specific instances where her hearing loss caused a problem other than that she “didn’t hear some things.” 

Summary Judgment

In granting summary judgment to the employer, Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Lawrence F. Stengel acknowledged that deafness substantially limits hearing and that hearing is a major life activity. Therefore, he reasoned, a deaf person is disabled. 

Finding that Mengel only provided evidence of hearing loss in one ear rather than bilateral deafness, however, Judge Stengel concluded Mengel had failed to present evidence that her hearing loss in one ear substantially limited her hearing. Therefore, Mengel’s unilateral deafness was not a disability under the ADA. Moreover, Judge Stengel explained, not every impairment will constitute a disability within the meaning of the ADA, even under the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, which expanded the scope of the law’s definition of a disability.

However, the Judge noted that Mengel presented evidence she might have been regarded as being disabled, but she did not establish the required causal link between her alleged disabilities and her termination from employment — while her alleged disabilities arose in 2007, Mengel’s employment was not terminated until 2009. Judge Stengel similarly determined that Mengel could not demonstrate her termination was based on her gender. Consequently, summary judgment was granted in favor of the Reading Eagle. 

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