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Night blindness is a disability under the ADA, says Second Circuit.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed a former New York City sanitation worker to sue the city--Which he claimed fired him when supervisors discovered he had night blindness--finding that the condition qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While acknowledging that little case law supports this finding, the court said a jury could reasonably find that the plaintiff suffered restriction of a major life activity. (Capobianco v. City of New York, 422 F.3d 47 (2d Cir. 2005).)

In 1998, the New York City Department of Sanitation (DOS) hired Anthony Capobianco as a sanitation worker. Capobianco, who is nearsighted, had tried to get a job with DOS for several years and received "perfect scores" on the city employment exam, but the agency disqualified him because of his "visual defect." After undergoing cataract surgery in 1997, Capobianco contacted DOS and asked to be reconsidered. After another vision test, the agency determined that he was "now medically qualified to perform the duties of a sanitation worker," according to court records.

Capobianco began on a day shift. The job involved both driving the sanitation truck and loading garbage. After about a year, DOS transferred him to a night shift. On his second night of driving the truck, Capobianco experienced severe vision difficulties and suffered a migraine headache. His supervisor told him to go home early.

When he returned to work two days later, DOS had placed him on what the agency calls a "medical tissue": light-duty and clerical work, with no driving. In March 1999, the tissue was changed to "no night driving" on the recommendation of a neuro-ophthalmologist who examined Capobianco at the agency's request.

In April 1999, another doctor, Scott Brodie, diagnosed Capobianco as having "congenital stationary night blindness." In a report to DOS, Brodie wrote that Capobianco would probably maintain his current level of visual function but should not drive at night.

In July 1999, Capobianco went back to regular duty, but working days only. He was temporarily transferred to the Safety and Training Division; in October, DOS informed Capobianco that the transfer was permanent. Two weeks later, he received a one-sentence letter informing him that his employment was terminated.

According to court records, the DOS personnel office recommended that Capobianco be fired because of his eye problems. In a memo to the human resources office, the head of personnel demanded to know why Capobianco was still employed, given that "the eye problem he has hampers his ability to perform the duties of sanitation workers, especially during the nighttime hours." DOS's Evaluation Review Board met and determined that he should be fired because of his "inability to sustain regular duty from a permanent medical condition."

Brodie prepared a report for the trial court explaining that Capobianco's night blindness "does not limit him in performing the daily activities of his life, as long as the lighting conditions are adequate." He explained that Capobianco was able to take care of his young daughter, including driving her to and from school; exercise regularly; walk his dog; and perform routine household tasks, and noted that be had a solid work history. But Capobianco can "engage in these activities only during the day" unless in a well-lit, familiar area, Brodie said.

The district court ruled that no reasonable jurywould consider Capobianco disabled or conclude that his employers viewed him as disabled. The court also noted that Capobianco did not seem severely restricted from engaging in any major activities and that previous rulings had not considered driving a major life activity.

But the court of appeals found that "the major life activity here.., is seeing, not driving." Furthermore, Justice Denny Chin wrote for the court, "a reasonable jury could find that driving, walking, running, biking, and engaging in other outdoor activities and excursions are important activities in the lives of most people and that the inability to engage in these activities at night or in dim light (which can encompass 14 hours a day in our part of the world) is not just a difference in sight but a severe restriction, that is, a substantial limitation, on the ability to see."

Chin also pointed to several excellent job evaluations that Capobianco received, saying that these showed he could perform the job with reasonable accommodation.
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Author:Sileo, Carmel
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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