ADA: Does Not Apply to Treatable Conditions, Court Rules
The Supreme Court yesterday limited the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ruling the law generally does not protect those with treatable or correctable conditions. In a series of rulings, the Court blocked discrimination lawsuits brought by severely nearsighted twins who wanted to be pilots, a truck driver almost blind in one eye and a mechanic with high blood pressure -- all of whom were either fired or denied employment. "We hold that determination of whether an individual is disabled should be made with reference to measures that mitigate the individual's impairment, including, in this instance, eyeglasses and contact lenses," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for the 7- 2 majority in the pilots' case. The mechanic's case was also decided 7-2, while the truck driver's case was a unanimous 9-0. The Court also held that the claimants did not trigger a provision of the law protecting those who are "regarded as" being disabled. O'Connor, noting that the ADA states 43 million Americans are disabled, wrote, "Had Congress intended to include all persons with corrected physical limitations among those covered by the act, it undoubtedly would have cited a much higher number of disabled persons in the findings. That it did not is evidence that the ADA's coverage is restricted to only those whose impairments are not mitigated by corrective measures." Dissenting in the pilots' and mechanic's case were Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer. Writing for the minority, Stevens said the court should allow the ADA "a generous, rather than a miserly construction." According to the American Bar Association, employers have won 92% of ADA cases resolved in court from 1992 to 1997 (AP/New York Times, 6/22).
No Place Like Home
In another ruling yesterday, the Court found that states may be required to place the mentally ill in homelike settings if they can fare just as well there as in state hospitals. By a 6-3 margin, the Court ruled that the ADA necessitates community placement for the mentally disabled. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, said such action "is in order when the state's treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the state and the needs of others with mental disabilities." The Court remanded the case of two Georgia women who sued to be released from a state mental hospital back to the appeals court, telling it to undertake "further consideration of the appropriate relief, given the range of facilities the state maintains for the care and treatment of persons with diverse mental disabilities, and its obligation to administer services with an even hand." But, Ginsburg wrote, the state would not be subject to the ADA if it could demonstrate that "in the allocation of available resources, immediate relief for plaintiffs would be inequitable, given the responsibility the state has undertaken for the care and treatment of a large and diverse population of persons with mental disabilities." Writing for the minority, which included Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonio Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, "Temporary exclusion from community placement does not amount to 'discrimination' in the traditional sense of the word" (AP/New York Times, 6/22). National Mental Health Association President Michael Faenza said, "The Supreme Court affirms the intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act to eliminate segregation and discrimination based on disability. Half of the 68,000 Americans with mental illnesses who are currently warehoused in nursing homes and state hospitals should enjoy the rights of other Americans to live in their own communities (NMHA release, 6/22).