Mitigation and the Americans with Disabilities Act

It is an open question whether the prohibition on employment discrimination in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects plaintiffs who have not attempted to mitigate the effect of their disability on their ability to work. Suppose, for example, that a job applicant has severely impaired vision because of a corneal disease. He can have corneal transplant surgery that his doctors recommend and expect will allow him to see much more clearly, but he does not want to have the surgery because of the complications sometimes associated with the operation and the possibility that the surgery will not work. He applies for a job that has been structured for people who can see clearly and asks the employer to purchase work equipment (like a new computer) that will enable him to perform the job with limited eyesight. Purchasing this equipment will be costly, and the employer asks why it should have to bear those costs when the applicant could have surgery to enable him to see better. The question raises a core issue of rights and responsibilities under a civil rights law. But Title I of the ADA, which protects “a qualified individual with a disability” from employment discrimination based on his disability, never indicates whether there is a duty to mitigate, either by undergoing medical procedures, using medication, pursuing physical therapy, losing weight, abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes, or taking other measures to improve health and eliminate obstacles to employment. The Supreme Court has not yet considered the question, and legal commentators have all but ignored it. The few lower courts to address a duty to mitigate under Title I are divided on whether mitigation should be required, and those in favor of the duty have not developed a clear standard for when that duty should apply. To the extent that the decisions supporting a duty to mitigate imply any principle for implementing the duty, most appear to suggest that Title I plaintiffs are obligated to mitigate whenever mitigation is possible. I reject both extremes of the existing debate. This Article argues that plaintiffs seeking Title I protection should be under a duty to mitigate, but that this duty should require plaintiffs to pursue only those mitigating measures that could reduce their need for workplace accommodation and that a reasonable person in the same situation would pursue.