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Home 9 Federal Legal Corner 9 Disability Discrimination by State Department

Disability Discrimination by State Department

In Adams v. Rice, 531 F.3d 936 (D.C. Cir., 2008), a U.S. Court of Appeals reserved a lower court decision granting summary judgment in favor of the State Department on grounds that the appellant has a “record of” an impairment – breast cancer – that substantially limited her sexual relations, which the D.C. Circuit determined was a major life activity under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The court of appeals remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings.

The appellant passed the United States Foreign Service entrance examinations and received a medical clearance only to learn that she had stage-one breast cancer. She then had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and after treatment, her doctor sent a letter to the State Department explaining that she was “in completed remission with an excellent prognosis,” had “no job limitations whatsoever” and was “entirely able to work overseas for long periods of time.” The State Department, however, expressing concern that many of its overseas posts lack adequate follow-up care facilities, revoked her medical clearance, thereby disqualifying her from the Foreign Service. Appellant sued, claiming discrimination on the basis of a physical disability, namely her history of breast cancer. The district court found the State Department’s “refusal to accept the recommendations of [appellant’s] physicians or otherwise accommodate her minor medical needs” to be “both callous and unreasonable,” but concluded summary judgment was appropriate because Adams failed to show she had a disability as defined in the statute.

The Supreme Court has held that to fall within the definition of “disabled,” one must “have an actual disability …, have a record of a disability …, or be regarded as having one.” Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471, 478 (1999). Here it is undisputed both that the appellant had a history of breast cancer and that breast cancer qualifies as a “physical impairment” under the Act. The D.C. Circuit next had to determine whether that impairment limited any of her major life activities. She asserted that her cancer substantially limited her in the major life activity of engaging in sexual relations, explaining that although she remains cancer-free, has an “excellent prognosis,” no longer requires ongoing cancer treatment, and “has no particular limits on her work activities,” she remains “limited in the major life activity of sexual contact and romantic intimacy.” According to the appellant, her cancer treatment left a “residual effect … that may never resolve” – one that is “psychological in nature.”

The D.C. Circuit concluded based on the statute’s text, the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Bragdon v. Abbott, 524 U.S. at 638 (1998) that human reproduction qualifies as a major life activity, and “a hefty dose of common sense,” that engaging in sexual relations qualifies as a major life activity under the Act. The D.C. Circuit also held that the appellant sufficiently alleged her limitation on that activity since the government nowhere challenged that she was substantially limited in her ability to engage in sexual relations or that this limitation was anything but a direct result of her cancer treatment.