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Appeals court rules ADA covers diabetes

SAN FRANCISCO – In a decision with potential implications for the nation’s 24 million diabetics, a federal appeals court ruled Friday that a Type-2 diabetes patient was entitled to the protections of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A lawsuit by Mesa, Ariz., resident Larry Rohr alleging that his public-utility employer discriminated against the disabled in pushing him out of his job was wrongfully dismissed by a lower court as involving a disease, not a disability, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The three-judge panel also found fault with the employer’s grounds for insisting Rohr take a lower-paying job, disability benefits or early retirement because he failed to take a test showing he could use a respirator that had little to do with his work as a welding metallurgy specialist.

Rohr described his job as engineering-services-related and predominantly performed in an office.

Rohr’s dismissal after 23 years with Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District constituted discrimination against the disabled as it was in response to a request from Rohr’s doctor that he be exempted from occasional out-of-area assignments that interfered with his insulin treatment and diet regime, the judges concluded.

“The ADA defines ‘disability’ as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual,” wrote the judges. “Diabetes is a physical impairment because it affects the digestive, hemic and endocrine systems, and eating is a major life activity.”

Rohr’s suit against the energy utility, one of Arizona’s largest, now must go to trial in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

The lawyer for Salt River, John Egberg, said the utility intended to fight the allegations that Rohr’s dismissal was an act of discrimination.

Friday’s ruling underscored that the ADA, as enacted in 1990 and amended in 2008, “expects employers to make reasonable accommodations and together with employees to find a way to maintain employment,” said Paula Pearlman, who heads the Disability Rights Legal Center at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.