• Is Every Worker with a Physical Impairment Afforded Protection Under the American Disabilities Act?
  • May 5, 2003 | Author: Patricia A. Monahan
  • Law Firm: Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin - Pittsburgh Office
  • The clear answer is no. The Supreme Court has reinforced Congressional intent to restrict coverage of the ADA to those who are severely impaired from doing actives which are of central importance to daily life. In January of this year, the high court announced its decision in Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, 2002 U.S.. LEXIS 400 (Jan. 8, 2002). The opinion has turned the heads of employers who, since the ADA was enacted in 1990, have been unclear as to what type of disabilities can render an employee disabled under the ADA and, thus, entitled to reasonable accommodations. Although the Toyota opinion does not completely put this issue to bed, it gives some further guidance, and it particularly clarifies that a disability which prevents an employee from completing specific job-related tasks will not afford that employee ADA protection. Instead, the Supreme Court has held that the inquiry should be whether the employee is prevented from or severely restricted "from doing activities that are of central importance to most people's daily lives." Toyota, 2002 U.S. LEXIS 400 (Jan. 8, 2002), at p. 26. Moreover, "the impairment's impact must also be permanent or long-term." Id., citing 29 CFR §§1630.2(j)(2)(ii)-(iii)(2001).

    In Toyota, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit's finding that Ella Williams was disabled because her carpal tunnel syndrome and other diagnoses prevented her from doing certain assembly line jobs which required repetitive work with hands and arms extended above shoulder level for extended periods of time. The reversal was warranted because the Sixth Circuit had created a new test for analyzing whether an employee was disabled because she was substantially limited in performing manual tasks. That is, according to the Sixth Circuit, Ms. Williams could show that she was disabled if she was substantially limited in performing a "class" of manual activities affecting the ability to perform tasks at work." Id., at 15. Notably, the Sixth Circuit ignored evidence that Ms. Williams was able to tend to her personal hygiene, carry out personal and household chores, and perform at least two other types of assembly line jobs at Toyota which did not involve the need for repetitive use of the hands. Significantly, not even Ms. Williams had argued in her Supreme Court brief that the Sixth Circuit had focused on the correct test.

    In order to understand the Supreme Court's mandate in Toyota that the ADA affords protection only to those who are severely restricted in daily life activities, a brief review of the statutory and regulatory definitions is warranted. First, the ADA requires employers "to provide `reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.'" Toyota, at p. 17, citing 42 U.S.C. §12112(b)(5)(A). The Act defines "`a qualified individual with a disability' as `an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.'" Toyota, at p. 17-18, citing 42 U.S.C. §12111(8). Under §12102(2) disability is defined as:

    (a) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (b) a record of such an impairment; or (c) being regarded as having such an impairment.

    Although it is clear that no agency has authority to interpret the term "disability," the EEOC has done so. See Toyota, at p. 19, and Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 119 S. Ct. 2139 (1999). The EEOC has defined "major life activities" as "functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working." 29 CFR, Part 1630.2(h)(i). "Substantially limits" is defined as "unable to perform a particular major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform or significantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which an individual can perform a particular major life activity as compared to the condition, manner or duration under which the average person in the general population can perform that same major life activity." 29 CFR, Part 1630.2(j)(i)(ii).

    In Toyota, only subpart A above was before the Court, i.e., whether the evidence was sufficient to show that Ms. Williams was substantially limited in one or more of her major life activities, and the specific life activity at issue was "performing manual tasks." Ms. Williams had argued before the Sixth Circuit that she was disabled from working, but that Court did not reach that argument because it held that Ms. Williams had shown that she was substantially limited in performing manual tasks. However, the test that the Court applied, which involved a showing that a plaintiff was disabled from a class of manual tasks associated with the ability to perform tasks at work, was erroneous.

    The Sixth Circuit had apparently derived that language from a misreading of the Supreme Court's decision in Sutton and by confusing the EEOC regulatory language governing the "major life activity" of "working." Specifically, the EEOC regulation set forth that one must be "significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities. The inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working." 29 CFR, Part 1630.2(j)(3)(i). If the Sixth Circuit's opinion had been upheld, an ADA plaintiff would subsequently be able to circumvent the requirement that he or she be substantially limited in a major life activity by simply coming forward with evidence that he or she could not perform manual tasks related to a particular job. This holding certainly was inconsistent with the EEOC's guidance that one cannot be disabled simply because a particular job cannot be performed.

    The Sixth Circuit's refusal to consider non-work-related manual tasks contravened the intent of the ADA. Its unmistakable goal was to ensure that impairments which are not work-related do not limit job opportunities for qualified individuals. Since the statutory definition of disability presupposes that an individual can work, with or without reasonable accommodations, it would be inconsistent with the Act to ignore non-work-related disabilities. It is that prejudice which can arise out of those very disabilities which could lead to the unemployment of an otherwise qualified individual that the Act was intended to overcome. This argument was presented to the Court in Toyota by an Amicus Curiae brief which the United States submitted on behalf of Toyota.

    The Toyota opinion is important to employers not only because it corrected the Sixth Circuit's mistake, but also because it clearly established the narrow definition of disability as one which encompasses an inability or severe restriction from important daily activities, and one which is permanent or long-term. Ms. Williams and the amici briefs submitted on her behalf argued to the Court that the inquiry under the ADA should be whether an individual can perform manual tasks "only at a level substantially below the level at which the average person in the general population can perform manual tasks." That argument was rejected in favor of the more restrictive language which requires a plaintiff to prove a complete inability or severe restriction in performing major life activities.

    Notably, the Supreme Court has left open the issue as to whether "working" can even be considered a "major life activity." It did not make such a finding since the Sixth Circuit had not ruled on the issue; however, the Court indicated that such a decision would be difficult.

    Ms. Williams and amici health law organizations had strongly argued that the Courts should not be discouraged from making inquiries on whether an ADA plaintiff is disabled from working. Toyota and its amici had argued that, to the extent the EEOC had included working as a "major life activity," the definition should be rejected. Their argument was based on the common sense principle that the inability to work cannot also be the reason for the exclusion from the workplace since such a concept creates a circular argument. (See, Mark R. Frietas, Closing the Floodgates: The Employee's Duty to Mitigate and Why Working is Not a Major Life Activity, 19 Rev. Litig. 465, 482 (2000). Furthermore, the EEOC itself has indicated that an examination of "working" should be done only if no other life activity is substantially limited.

    The idea of an employer making accommodations for "working" is too vague and is an impossible standard for an employer to meet. An employer can accommodate specific disabilities. Working is a collection of activities, not a discrete concept, and should not be considered a "major life activity." Moreover, it is difficult to fathom that "working" can be a "major life activity" since many people do not work for a variety of reasons. In Toyota, the Supreme Court hinted that it may consider this argument another day, and that, at least as of January of this year, a claim that an ADA plaintiff is disabled from "working," as opposed to the other "major life activities" that the EEOC describes in its regulations, may be quite difficult to prevail upon.

    In conclusion, in analyzing whether an impaired individual will be considered disabled under the ADA, the focus should be on inabilities or severe restrictions in performing essential daily life activities and whether such are permanent or long-term. We also need to keep in mind the clear state of the law that the focus is an individualized one. This is another concept in which the parties and Amici groups agreed upon in Toyota. For instance, rather than examining the medical definition and prognoses for particular impairments, the focus will be on how the impairment affects a particular individual.