Fifth Circuit: ADA Protects Employee with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

A really interesting case out of the Fifth Circuit this past week: EEOC v. Chevron Phillips, No. 07-20661 (5th Cir. June 5, 2009).  The case is of interest for a couple of reasons.

First, any Fifth Circuit case that allows an ADA plaintiff to have a jury trial is to a degree notable for that fact alone.  In this case, the Court held that the plaintiff -- suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome ("CFS") -- presented a genuine issue of material fact about whether she was substantially limited in the major life activities of caring for herself, sleeping, and thinking.  My favorite sentence from the whole opinion is as follows:

"We conclude that sleeping and thinking are major life activities."

Whew!  Glad we cleared that up.

The Court went on in the opinion to give a bit of a tongue lashing to the magistrate judge that had awarded the Defendant summary judgment. 

"The magistrate judge, citing no authority, found that none of Netterville’s
impairments rendered her disabled because her CFS was “intermittent” and
because her impairments were “short-lived, non-permanent, and non-severe.” The magistrate judge, citing no authority, found that none of Netterville’s
impairments rendered her disabled because her CFS was “intermittent” and
because her impairments were “short-lived, non-permanent, and non-severe.”"

The Court took special note of the magistrate court having taken it upon itself to question the plaintiff under oath and grill the plaintiff regarding what it perceived to be discrepancies between deposition and affidavit testimony.

"[I]t bears noting that this procedure is unusual and arguably inappropriate at the summary judgment stage. The very fact that the magistrate judge questioned Netterville about perceived discrepancies between her deposition and affidavit tends to indicate that the magistrate judge was weighing evidence and resolving conflicts in the summary judgment evidence, and failing to give the plaintiff the benefit of all favorable inferences that could be drawn."

For those of you not familiar with summary judgment practice, this behavior by the magistrate is truly strange.  The purpose of a summary judgment is not to determine whether some evidence in the case should be believed over other evidence.  The fact that a federal magistrate thought this was a good idea and, perhaps more surprisingly, that neither side in the case apparently objected to the process is pretty surprising to say the least.  I am now very curious to learn if this type of practice is as rare as I assume it is or if it is more widespread.

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