A Federal Court and the EEOC Staff Appear to Disagree on Whether Shy Bladder Syndrome Is a Disability

Federal courts have applied a “demanding standard” in construing whether a particular impairment is recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Plaintiffs who seek to show that they experienced an adverse action, such as termination, as the result of their impairment must show that the impairment prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.

Enterprising plaintiff’s attorneys are continuously seeking to push the bounds of what constitutes a disability.  In the Western District of Virginia, for example, an attorney argued that his client’s termination for failing to provide a urine sample for a drug test violated the ADA because his client had shy bladder syndrome and could not urinate in the presence of other persons.  While the court acknowledged that shy bladder syndrome (otherwise known as “paruresis”) constituted a physical or mental impairment that implicated a major life activity, it rejected the plaintiff’s argument that shy bladder syndrome caused a substantial limitation on his ability to urinate.  That decision is Linkous v. CraftMaster Mfg. Inc.

Initially, the conclusion that paruresis does not substantially limit a person’s ability to urinate is surprising.  After all, shy bladder syndrome often prevents a person from urinating under certain conditions, which may differ from person to person.  However, the key to the court’s decision was the plaintiff’s ability to manage the condition by, for example, using bathroom stalls or only using vacant restrooms.  Because the plaintiff had ways to cope with the impairment, he was unable to show that the limitations he experienced were substantial.

Although the decision is well reasoned, it appears that staff members in the EEOC may disagree with the court’s decision.  In an informal discussion letter published in August 2011, which is intended to provide an informal discussion of the issue but does not constitute an official opinion of the EEOC, EEOC staff members stated that the determination of whether an individual’s paruresis substantially limits a major life activity is based on the limitations imposed by the condition when its symptoms are present (disregarding any mitigating measures that might limit or eliminate the symptoms).  Since the reasoning of the EEOC staff members is almost directly contrary to the reasoning of the judge in the above-described case, the decision of the federal district court may not be the last word on the subject.