Ever have stage fright when having to urinate in a public toilet? Can’t offer a sample for that employment-related drug test? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may protect such a condition and require the employer to offer a reasonable accommodation.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission) recently issued an Opinion Letter on the issue of whether paruresis, also known as shy bladder syndrome, is a disability under the ADA. (The opinion letter was written by the EEOC’s Legal Counsel, Peggy Mastroianni, who was a guest speaker at our annual Labor and Employment Law seminar in 2002.) Paruresis is the inability to urinate in public restrooms or in close proximity to other people, or the fear of being able to do so.
The Commission’s Opinion Letter sets forth the legal definitions and standards for disability and substantial limitation of major life activity. The letter reminds employers that under the ADA Amendments, major life activities include major bodily functions, such as bladder and brain functions and functions of the neurological and genitourinary systems. The letter also reminds employers that the ADA Amendments were intended to construe the term “substantially limits” broadly and that an impairment does not have to prevent or severely limit or significantly restrict a major life activity to be considered substantially limiting. The EEOC opinion letter does not conclude that a person with paruresis has a disability but does state that the ADA Amendments and its implementing regulations make proving whether paruresis is a disability “much easier, by including bladder and brain functions as major life activities, lowering the standard for establishing than an impairment ‘substantially limits’ a major life activity, and focusing the determination of whether an individual is ‘regarded as’ having a disability on how the individual has been treated because of the impairment, rather than on what the employer may have believed about impairment.”
The safest approach would be to treat the employee’s pauresis as a disability and then assess whether an accommodation – hair, saliva, blood, patch drug test – would cause the employer an undue hardship. By focusing on the accommodation rather than the alleged disability, the employer may be better able to avoid a case of tinkle troubles from becoming a federal case.