Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit because the plaintiff failed to provide an expert witness connecting a diagnosed medical impairment to the harm she allegedly suffered. In its decision, the 10th Circuit clarifies the standard for proving a medical condition in an ADA claim and reinforces the need for medical expert witnesses.
ADA Plaintiff Alleges Injury Caused Failure to Work
In Felkins v City of Lakewood, Plaintiff Cynthia Felkins, formerly an employee for the City of Lakewood, Colorado, claimed that a medical condition called avascular necrosis caused two significant injuries that prevented her from working for long stretches during the early part of 2009. In late 2008, Felkins suffered from a broken femur causing her to miss over 466 hours in the first 10 months of her job as an emergency call-center dispatcher. After being fired in early April of 2009, Ms. Felkins filed a discrimination lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that alleged the City of Lakewood failed to accommodate for her disability of avascular necrosis.
The City responded that Ms. Felkins had failed to demonstrate that she had a disability that qualified her for a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Arguing that Ms. Felkins had not provided documentation or testimony from a medical expert as is required by the ADA, Lakewood attorneys requested the case be dismissed. The trial court agreed with the City and dismissed the claim because Ms. Felkins’s only proof of her disability was her own testimony, which was not sufficient to prove that her avascular necrosis was the cause of the injuries that kept her from working.
10th Circuit Requires Expert to Prove Medical Condition in ADA Case
On appeal, the 10th Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal after finding that Ms. Felkins’s own testimony that her avascular necrosis caused her injuries was insufficient to prove an ADA claim. A necessary component to winning an ADA lawsuit is demonstrating the existence of a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more major activities.” Throughout her complaint, Ms. Felkins argued that her avascular necrosis created abnormal cell growth and blood flow that prevented her from lifting, walking, and standing normally, and, most importantly to her lawsuit, caused her a long-term injury that kept her away from her job.
Despite repeated insistence that her avascular necrosis led to her medical impairment, Ms. Felkins did not provide any professional medical evidence from an expert witness that the condition affected her major life activities. Citing relevant case law, the 10th Circuit opinion found the Plaintiff’s allegations that she suffered from an ADA qualifying impairment unconvincing due to lack of an expert. Writing, “[W]here injuries complained of are of such character as to require skilled and professional persons to determine the cause and extent thereof, they must be proved by the testimony of medical experts,” the Court pointed to the need for an expert to verify Ms. Felkins’s claims that her avascular necrosis caused her injury.
Without an expert witness proving her condition caused limitations that the City of Lakewood needed to consider, the 10th Circuit could not allow the case to proceed on Ms. Felkins’s personal testimony alone. The case serves as a reminder that, while there is a place for lay-testimony, the word of an expert witness is required when medical conditions are the center of debate in ADA claims.
Medical Expert Witnesses in ADA Claims
While lay-testimony such as Ms. Felkins’s declarations is admissible to describe symptoms of a disease or medical impairment, the 10th Circuit reminded plaintiffs that an expert witness is required to not only diagnose a medical condition but also identify the illness as a cause of limitation on major life activities. Although the ADA was amended in 2008 to loosen the burden of proving the existence of an ADA qualifying injury, the 10th Circuit found that plaintiffs are still required to connect symptoms and other evidence of impaired life activity to a diagnosed medical condition.
In this case, Ms. Felkins case failed because she could not demonstrate that her alleged avascular necrosis caused her physical limitation. Without evidence of the necessary cause, she could not demonstrate that she qualified for an ADA claim. Plaintiffs reading the Felkins case can note that a medical expert witness should be part of any ADA claim in order to connect a diagnosed condition to limitations that require accommodation by employers.