Supreme Court to Hear 2 Cases on Scope of ADA Protection
The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear appeals of two cases to determine whether the Americans with Disabilities Act covers individuals with repetitive stress injuries and whether the rights of workers with disabilities to be accommodated by employers should trump a "valid seniority system." The New York Times reports that the first case, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky v. Williams, will address the "more urgent" issue of "defining disability" under the ADA. It centers around Ella Williams, who began working on the Toyota assembly line in 1990 (Greenhouse, New York Times, 4/17). Williams developed carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis "within months" of starting her job, and the company transferred her to a quality control position, but her ailments returned. She then refused a second job switch, and was fired by Toyota. Williams sued under the ADA, arguing that the company "failed to make a reasonable accommodation for her condition" (Greenberger, Wall Street Journal, 4/17). A federal district court rejected her claim, ruling that "Williams was not disabled because, while she could not perform certain tasks, she was still able to hold many jobs at the plant." The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court's decision, concluding that Williams was "significantly limited in her ability to perform manual tasks and ... was therefore disabled under the 1990 law" (Healy, Baltimore Sun, 4/17).
The second case, US Airways v. Barnett, involves a former cargo handler at the airline who suffered a back injury and requested a permanent reassignment to the mail room. The airline denied Barnett's request, saying that "more senior workers" were in line for the job. Barnett sued under the ADA. A federal judge rejected his claim, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and sent the case to a jury trial (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 4/17). The airline then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the circuit court's decision "converts a statute that bars discrimination against disabled employees into one that requires discrimination against non-disabled employees."
The Sun reports that the two cases will give the Supreme Court a "chance to resolve uncertainties about the scope" of the ADA, whose "broad language has spawned conflicting interpretations about how far its protections extend" (Baltimore Sun, 4/17). The Times reports that the Williams case is of particular interest to employers and worker advocates. The National Association of Manufacturers, in a brief filed with the court on behalf of Toyota, said that roughly 850,000 Americans experience carpal tunnel syndrome every year, and that extending ADA protection to the ailment "will open the floodgates to a crippling surge of litigation." The Times reports that the question in the Williams case is "how to interpret the language of the statute," which defines disability as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities," such as performing manual tasks, walking and working. In its brief, Toyota argued that the appeals court had "set the bar too low" in "permitting a finding of disability for an impairment that merely affected, rather than significantly restricted, a major life activity" (New York Times, 4/17). However, "siding with Williams," Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, said that carpal tunnel injuries can be "career-ending, life-altering, serious, disabling injuries" (Wall Street Journal, 4/17). Two years ago, the Court "sided with business" interests and ruled that the ADA does not "cover prospective workers who were rejected because of treatable diseases or bad eyesight," finding that these "ordinary impediments" did not "rise to the level of a true disability" (Los Angeles Times, 4/17). The two cases accepted yesterday will be the "first major test ... of what disabilities are covered by the ADA" since that decision (Biskupic, USA Today, 4/17).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.