The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has essentially ruled that fear of sexual contact is a disability for which employment discrimination is prohibited under the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Kathy Adams, the plaintiff in the July 2008 case of Adams v. Rice, was well on her way to landing a job with the U.S. Foreign Service, a division of the Department of State. She scored high on the exams and received a medical clearance for worldwide assignment.
Shortly afterwards, Adams was diagnosed with stage-one breast cancer for which she underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Two months later, she had a hysterectomy as part of her breast-cancer treatment.
Her surgeries were successful and her prognosis was excellent, as verified in the letter that her doctor wrote at the request of the Department of State. According to her doctor, Adams was “cancer-free,” had “no job limitations whatsoever,” could “undertake a full schedule of work, travel and vigorous sports” and was “entirely able to work overseas for long periods of time.”
Regardless, the Department of State, concerned that Adams might not receive adequate follow-up medical care while assigned to an overseas post, disqualified her from employment by revoking her medical clearance. Subsequently, Adams sued the Department of State in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, for disability discrimination in employment under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The Rehabilitation Act prohibits Federal agencies from discriminating in employment against disabled individuals. Under the Act, a disabled individual is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a record of such an impairment, or a person who is regarded as having such an impairment.
Adams alleged disability discrimination based on her claim that she had a record of disability for which the Department of State was discriminating against her in employment, despite that she was “fit as a fiddle,” could work anywhere in the world and required no specialized follow-up treatment.
But the District Court ruled against Adams, concluding that she had failed to show a disability or a record of same as defined in the Act. (Temporary impairment while successfully recovering from surgery does not qualify as a disability under the Act.) The Court granted a summary judgment to the Department of State, instead of allowing Adams to proceed with her disability discrimination lawsuit in a trial by jury.
Adams then appealed her case, arguing that the residual effects of breast cancer indefinitely limited her “in the major life activity of sexual contact and romantic intimacy.” She indicated that, like many breast-cancer survivors, she has a deep-seated psychological fear of sexual contact because of the residual effects, such as low self-esteem from her post-surgery physical appearance and loss of sex drive from a medication side effect.
The Court of Appeals concluded that sexual contact clearly is a “major life activity” under the Rehabilitation Act. The Court further concluded that Adams has a record of an impairment that continues to substantially limit one of her major life activities, due to her psychological fear of sexual contact. Subsequently, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling in favor of Adams.