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De la Torres v. Bolger: Fifth Circuit Hold Left-Handed Employee Not Handicapped Within the Meaning of the Rehabilitation Act

In De la Torres v. Bolger, the Fifth Circuit addressed alleged violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Act). The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of a case, as it found that being left-handed was not an "impairment" within the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act.

In June 1978, de la Torres was hired as a part-time letter carrier by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). De la Torres, who was left-handed, was hired subject to a 90-day probationary period. De la Torres received a routine three-day general orientation and three days of initial training in street mail delivery. His supervisor recommended additional training because De la Torres took too long to complete his rounds. De la Torres received an additional 16 hours of training. Both of De la Torres' trainers instructed him to use his right hand to deliver mail because he appeared awkward when he used his left hand. However, when unsupervised, De la Torres used his left hand to deliver mail. During his 30-day evaluation, De la Torres received unsatisfactory ratings in four of twelve categories. These included progress in learning the job, progress in learning required schemes, productivity and work habits, and safety.

In July 1978, the USPS terminated De la Torres because of his unsatisfactory slowness in delivering mail. After an unsuccessful appeal to the EEOC, De la Torres filed suit against the Postmaster General (Bolger) in federal court, alleging that his supervisors regarded his left-handedness as a handicap and that his discharge because of a handicap was unlawful under the Rehabilitation Act. The district court dismissed the suit and De la Torres appealed.

The Fifth Circuit noted that to maintain a suit under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the plaintiff must first show he is a "handicapped individual" within the meaning of the Act. Under the Act, a "handicapped individual" is defined as "any person who (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such impairment.

The Fifth Circuit stated that case law defining the terms "handicapped person" and "impairment" was limited, but provided a list of conditions which other courts had found to constitute impairments. These included chronic tuberculosis, legal blindness, manic depressive syndrome, nervous and heart conditions, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and a partially amputated leg. The court found that being left-handed was a physical characteristic, not a chronic illness, a disorder or deformity, a mental disability, or a condition affecting De la Torres' health. Thus, the court held that being left-handed was not an "impairment" under the Act and that De la Torres was not a handicapped individual.

De la Torres v. Bolger, 781 F.2d 1134 (5th Cir. 1986).

NOTE: This case was decided under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act provide that Rehabilitation Act cases may be used for guidance under the ADA.