Toyota Case May Determine Scope of ADA
The Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments in a case that may determine whether the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act applies to individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome or a similar condition that "interferes with a limited number of tasks," USA Today reports (Biskupic, USA Today, 11/8). The ADA requires employers to offer "reasonable accommodations" for a "qualified individual with a disability" (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 11/8). In the case heard yesterday, Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, Ella Williams, a former employee at a Toyota Motors Corp. facility in Kentucky, said that the company fired her as a result of a "painful" repetitive stress injury to her arms and hands that prevented her from "doing her job" -- sponging 500 cars per day. Robert Rosenbaum, Williams' attorney, said that the ADA, which defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more" major life activities, should apply to individuals such as Williams who "cannot perform a particular job." The ADA "is about working. It's about a lawsuit to keep a job," he said. However, Toyota attorney John Roberts called Williams' impairment, diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome, a "specialized and idiosyncratic limitation" and said that the ADA did not apply (Lane, Washington Post, 11/8). "Repetitiously wiping down cars is not a major life activity," he said (Gearan, Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/8). Roberts added that Williams still can perform a "wide range of manual tasks" (USA Today, 11/8). Still, Williams argues that her condition would "bar her from most jobs available" to a Kentucky resident with a "modest education" (Washington Post, 11/8).
The New York Times reports that in the past, the Supreme Court "has been skeptical" about whether "working" qualifies as a major life activity under the ADA (Greenhouse, New York Times, 11/8). During arguments in the case yesterday, Justice Antonin Scalia said that Congress passed the ADA to cover "a limited class of people: the handicapped," not "everyone who lost a thumb." He also "expressed amazement" that a "relatively minor" condition such as carpal tunnel syndrome could qualify as a disability (Los Angeles Times, 11/8). However, Justice Stephen Breyer asked, "Isn't the issue just whether this person is hurt badly enough that there are an awful lot of things she can't do that people do in life?" (New York Times, 11/8). The Bush administration and several industry groups have filed briefs in the case on behalf of Toyota. Stephen Bokat, general counsel of the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that a win for Williams would "explode the cost of doing business" (Washington Post, 11/8). Business lawyers added that the Supreme Court should not expand the ADA to force employers to offer "affirmative" benefits to "marginal workers," but disability rights advocates disagreed (Los Angeles Times, 11/8). According to a brief filed by the National Council on Disability, a Toyota win "would prevent many individuals whom Congress intended the ADA to cover from receiving its protection." The AFL-CIO and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America also back Williams (Washington Post, 11/8). In 1997, a federal district judge dismissed Williams' lawsuit, but the U.S Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that Williams' condition qualified her for ADA protection. Toyota appealed the case to the Supreme Court (Los Angeles Times, 11/8). The court will likely issue a ruling in the case by next July (USA Today, 11/8). To listen to an NPR "All Things Considered" report on the case, go to http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/atc/20011107.atc.15.ram. Note: You must have RealPlayer Audio to listen to the report.