Who is a Disabled Employee under the Illinois Human Rights Act?

On November 23, 2021, the Illinois Appellate Court, Second District, reversed an order of the trial court, that had dismissed the plaintiff's disability discrimination complaint on the ground that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Illinois Human Rights Act (the "Act").  Jackson v. TSA Processing Chicago, Inc., et al., 2021 IL App (2d) 200769 (2nd Dist. Nov. 23, 2021).  The plaintiff alleged that the defendants discriminated against him on the basis of his disability in violation of the Act.  At issue on appeal was whether he is disabled under the Act.

The plaintiff was hired by the defendants to operate a metal-cutting machine at their plant.  The plaintiff alleged that he suffers from a congenital disability, ectodermal dysplasia hydrosis, which can lead to a dangerously high body temperature in extremely hot weather.  The plaintiff alleged that he was able to perform his job adequately.  He alleged that he was fired in retaliation for requesting the reasonable accommodation of leaving early on one extremely hot day.  The plaintiff also alleged that the defendants allowed non-disabled employees who were injured or ill to leave early from time to time, but refused to allow him to do so because of his disability.  According to the plaintiff, he would have been able to continue to adequately perform his job if he had not been fired.  

The trial court acknowledged that the plaintiff had a disability and suffered an adverse job action, but stated that the Act requires his disability to be unrelated to his ability to perform his job.  To qualify for protection under the Act, the plaintiff's disability must not affect his ability to perform his job.  According to the trial court, his job included working on hot days in July, and that "[H]e can't perform the job if he can't work in July in the hot weather."

The appellate court addressed the issue of whether the plaintiff is disabled within the meaning of the Act.  The Act prohibits discrimination because of an employee's physical or mental disability.  The Act defines a disability as a "determinable physical or mental characteristic of a person, including, but not limited to, a determinable physical characteristic which necessitates the person's use of a guide, hearing or support dog, the history of such characteristic, or the perception of such characteristic by the person complained against, which may result from disease, injury, congenital condition of birth, or functional disorder."  Additionally, the disability must be "unrelated to the person's ability to perform the duties of a particular job or position."  An employee who can perform his or her job with (or without) a reasonable accommodation is disabled within the meaning of the Act.  An employee who cannot, by reason of a physical condition, perform the duties of his or her job, even with accommodation, is not disabled under the Act.

The appellate court concluded that the plaintiff sufficiently alleged that he is disabled.  He could perform his job without accommodation on most days; and could perform his job with the reasonable accommodation of leaving early on hot days.  Thus, the plaintiff's disability is unrelated to his ability to perform his job duties, and he is disabled under the Act.  Consequently, he could proceed in court with his disability discrimination lawsuit.