November 1996

Workplace Labor Update - No Knowledge of Disability: No ADA Claim – November 1996

3 min

The courts recently have shed light on the question of when and how a disabled individual must notify an employer of an existing disability in order to state a viable disability discrimination claim. Although an employer's knowledge of an alleged disability has often been heralded as a prerequisite to a disabled person's ability to sue under federal antidiscrimination acts, there has been surprisingly little guidance from the federal courts regarding what constitutes sufficient notice of a disability and when that notice must be received by an employer in order to be effective. The case of Tan v. Runyon, 91 F.3d 133 (4th Cir. 1996) is a good start toward answering these troublesome questions.

Charlie Tan, a 27 year old South Vietnamese immigrant, applied for employment with the U.S. Postal Service and was scheduled for an interview in February 1993. As part of the interview, Tan was required to undergo a drug test. Although he had not yet submitted his urine sample, he marked a box on the form (to be completed by the medical unit administering the drug test) indicating that he was qualified for employment consideration. Then, he simply returned the form to the personnel office.

Tan's application was reviewed by a Postal Service personnel specialist. When the absence of a drug test result and the accompanying error on his drug testing form were discovered, Tan was immediately disqualified. In addition, Tan's name was excluded from further consideration for Postal Service employment. At that point Tan's sister, who had accompanied him to the interview, came forward and attempted to dissuade the personnel specialist from disqualifying her brother by explaining that he "was a very slow learner and must have been confused." The personnel specialist was convinced, however, that Tan had simply falsified his drug testing form and refused to alter the disqualification decision.

Tan filed a lawsuit, alleging that the Postal Service had discriminated against him based on his mental disability. The court dismissed Tan's claims because he failed to show that the Postal Service had any reason to know of his mental disability.

Tan then appealed the lower court's dismissal of his claim. In affirming the dismissal, the federal appeals court indicated that "the critical requirement is that the employer knew of the disability at the time of the alleged discrimination." The appeals court found that the lower court properly dismissed the case because "unless the Postal Service knew of Tan's alleged disability, there can be no cause of action."

The court of appeals also opined that the mere statement that an individual is "slow" does not equate with notice that the individual has a "mental disability." Rather, the court stated, "an employer must know about the existing specific disability before it can be liable for failing to accommodate the disabled person's needs."

Tan is a significant decision because it settles a central issue of disability discrimination cases: an individual with a disability cannot maintain silence regarding his disability until an adverse employment action has occurred and then succeed in a federal disability discrimination claim. Moreover, Tan also instructs that the vague suggestion that an individual is "slow" will be considered insufficient notice to support a claim of disability discrimination.