Genetic information as “perceived disability”: Chadam v. PAUSD
Chadam v. PAUSD, as previously covered on Genomics Law Report, is a case in which parents of a school boy are alleging that a school district violated their son’s rights when it made the decision that it would transfer the boy to another school because of his genetic information. Specifically, the allegation is that when the boy moved to the area and registered for school, (1) the school district learned of the boy’s genetic information related to cystic fibrosis, (2) the boy was regarded as disabled by the school district, and (3) on the basis of this perceived disability, the school district decided to transfer the boy to another school to protect two other students at the school who have cystic fibrosis. The school district’s decision was apparently based on the idea that the boy, because of his genetic markers, posed a cross-infection risk to the students with cystic fibrosis. Individuals with cystic fibrosis, because their respiratory symptoms create host environments favorable to microbiological pathogens, are often separated from one another to minimize risk of spreading germs to one another. Mere carriers of the genetic markers associated with cystic fibrosis do not pose such cross-infection risks.
This case unequivocally does not involve GINA, a federal nondiscrimination statute that has very limited scope and does not protect individuals from discrimination in education. While the facts alleged could have supported a clear claim for violation of California’s genetic nondiscrimination statute, CalGINA, which affords broader protections than the federal statute, the attorney for the Chadams did not raise that claim. Instead, this case alleges violations of two federal antidiscrimination statutes, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Title II of the ADA requires public education to be free from discrimination, and Section 504 requires all federally funded programs and activities to be free from discrimination. Under both provisions, individuals cannot be excluded from participating in or enjoying the benefits of education because of disability. The statutes protect three basic classes of individuals: (1) those who have a disability (i.e., those who have a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity); (2) those with a history or record of having a disability; and (3) those with a perceived disability (i.e., those “regarded as” having a disability). (For more information, see A Guide to Disability Rights Laws published by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice)
The plaintiffs in Chadam have appealed the trial court’s decision to grant the school district’s motion to dismiss the case (a Rule 12(b)(6) motion). In granting the school district’s motion, the court basically decided that even if it assumed all of the facts alleged by the plaintiffs to be true and drew all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiffs, there would not be a valid claim upon which relief could be granted. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which covers California, will focus on whether the district court erred in reaching that decision. The court of appeals will consider the motion de novo—that is, will give no deference to the trial court’s decision—and determine whether the facts alleged in the pleadings, when read in the light most favorable to the plantiffs, state a claim for relief that is plausible. The amicus brief filed by the United States (Department of Justice and Department of Education) urges the Ninth Circuit to reverse the district court’s decision and remand the case, stating that the plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to support a claim of intentional discrimination under Title II of the ADA and Section 504.
Is there judicial precedent for ADA protection of genetic information?
About 15 years ago, long before Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, there was a case in which individuals sought ADA protection from genetic discrimination. That case involved the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), which allegedly had been using employees’ genetic information in connection with work-related carpal tunnel syndrome claims. The case was never decided by a court, however. In 2001 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and BNSF settled the EEOC’s request for injunctive relief to stop the company’s genetic testing, and in 2002 the EEOC and BNSF settled the request for damages with an agreement to compensate individuals with up to $2.2 million. While the settlement agreement was subject to approval by the Eastern District of Wisconsin (see 2002 WL 32155386), this case did not set judicial precedent that the ADA protects individuals from decisions based on genetic information.
Does the relevant legislative history suggest that individuals are protected from genetic discrimination because of “perceived disability”?
To answer this question, it is useful to start with legal scholar Mark Rothstein’s thorough 1992 analysis of the law regarding genetic discrimination and possible protection under the ADA as it existed at that time. See Mark A. Rothstein, Genetic Discrimination in Employment and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 29 Hous. L. Rev. 23 (1992).
In the early 1990s, in a letter to a Congressional committee chair, the EEOC actually rejected the idea that the ADA prohibits genetic discrimination against asymptomatic individuals, instead taking the position that the ADA would only protect an individual once the condition existed and symptoms were present. The EEOC’s technical assistance manual in 1992 also noted that genetic predisposition and family history are not “impairments” protected by the ADA. Nearly 10 years later, following the issuance of the Executive Order 13145 in 2000 that protects federal employees from genetic discrimination, the EEOC provided guidance indicating that instances of disparate treatment on the basis of genetic test results or family medical history would support a claim that an individual was “regarded as” having a disability and thus protected under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.
As a matter of history, Congress and advocates alike did not believe that the ADA or Section 504 were sufficient to protect individuals from genetic nondiscrimination. In the statutory text of GINA, Congress found, “Federal law addressing genetic discrimination…is incomplete in both the scope and depth of its protections.” (PL 110-233, Finding 5).
To date, there are no direct cases on point deciding that genetic information is a “perceived disability” under the ADA and Section 504 or, conversely, ruling out that possibility.
What are the implications of this case?
Ultimately, a broad ruling in Chadam that genetic information alone is a sufficient basis to bring an action for “perceived disability” could dramatically expand individual genetic nondiscrimination protection—at least in the Ninth Circuit. Courts in other federal circuits would not be bound by a Ninth Circuit decision and could choose whether or not to follow it. That reality, combined with the strong public reactions to this case, suggests that Congress has important work to do to strengthen genetic nondiscrimination protections in education and other sectors of society currently not addressed directly by federal statutes.