• Supreme Court Decides Three Major Disability Cases
  • May 5, 2003 | Author: Gilbert M. Román
  • Law Firm: Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons LLP - Office
  • The U.S. Supreme Court issued three important Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) decisions in 2002. The cumulative effect of Toyota Motor Mfg. Kentucky v. Williams, Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Echazabal, and U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett is to substantially restrict the definition of disability under the ADA, and to expand defenses available to employers.

    Toyota Motor Mfg. Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams

    In Toyota, a former employee sued under the ADA for failure to provide her with a reasonable accommodation. Ms. Williams was an auto assembly plant worker who developed carpal tunnel syndrome, which resulted in work restrictions that Toyota had accommodated for years. Later, Toyota decided to change Williams's job duties by having her apply a coat of oil to the surface of cars in addition to performing visual inspection duties. Williams responded by seeking another reasonable accommodation, i.e., that she not be required to apply the oil because of her carpal tunnel syndrome. After all, she argued, the company had been accommodating her for years by not requiring her to perform such manual tasks.

    When the company refused to alter her job description, Williams sued, claiming the performance of manual tasks was a major life activity that she could not perform. She also argued that her inability to perform oil application was proof of substantial limitations on that major life activity.

    The Supreme Court unanimously held that Plaintiff Williams was not disabled. In doing so, it adopted a restrictive analysis of the terms "substantially limits" and "major life activity."

    With regard to "substantially limits," the Court applied the following strict interpretation:

    An impairment is "substantially limits" only if it "prevents or severely restricts" the individual from engaging in any major life activity.

    The Court further stated that to meet the "substantially limits" definition, a worker must show more than a medical diagnosis. The Court's definition of "major life activity" was equally restrictive:

    The proper inquiry is not the worker's ability to perform a specific job task, but rather how well the worker can perform all the manual tasks associated with daily living.

    In other words, when focusing on major life activities, the Supreme Court stated that you should look to activities of "central importance to daily life," e.g., combing one's hair or brushing one's teeth. Under these narrow definitions, the Court concluded that Plaintiff Williams was not disabled under the ADA, and therefore, Toyota had no duty to try to accommodate her.

    Practical Significance

    The Toyota decision underscores that having an impairment does not automatically make one "disabled" as defined under the ADA. Indeed, lower courts are now directed to strictly interpret the terms "substantially limits" and "major life activities." Fewer workers will likely meet the definition of ADA once these restrictive definitions are employed. In short, because the focus has shifted from whether an employee is unable to perform his or her specific work-related tasks to whether the employee is able to perform tasks central to most people's daily lives, many cases once thought to fall under the definition of the Americans With Disabilities Act will no longer survive dispositive motions.

    Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Echazabal

    In Chevron, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld an EEOC regulation authorizing a refusal to hire an individual if his or her performance on the job would endanger the worker's own health because of a disability. Mario Echazabal was employed by a subcontractor at one of Chevron's oil refineries until Chevron's doctors asserted that Echazabal's liver condition would be exacerbated by continued exposure to toxins at the refinery. At that point Chevron asked the contractor to reassign Echazabal to work that did not expose him to these toxins. The subcontractor, however, responded by laying Echazabal off.

    In its decision, the Supreme Court addressed the tension between the federal disability laws and the federal health and safety laws. Although there may be an open question of whether an employer would actually be liable under OSHA for hiring an individual who knowingly consented to the particular dangers the job would pose to him, there is no denying that the employer would be asking for trouble: his decision to hire would put Congress's policy in the ADA, a disabled individual's right to operate on equal terms within the workplace, at loggerheads with the competing policy of OSHA, to insure the safety of "each" and "every" worker. The Court concluded that an employer need not be put into such an untenable position.

    Practical Significance

    The Supreme Court ruling provides protection for employers who are legitimately concerned about hiring or retaining workers who would endanger their own health because of a disability. However, it is important to note that the Court was not asked to review the issue of reasonable accommodation in that case. In many situations, employers will be required to search for some type of a reasonable accommodation, including moving a worker to a vacant position for which he or she is qualified, rather than simply not employing the individual. Moreover, the Court made clear that the decision of whether an individual can or cannot perform a job without endangering his or her own health should be based on an individualized medical assessment and not the subjective views of the employer.

    U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett

    In Barnett, an employee who, following a back injury, had transferred to a less physically demanding position lost his job when a more senior employee was allowed to bid on the position under the employer's seniority rule.

    Mr. Barnett brought an action under the ADA, alleging that the employer violated the ADA by not honoring his request to be permanently assigned to that position as a "reasonable accommodation."

    The Supreme Court held that the employer's showing that the requested accommodation conflicts with an established seniority system is ordinarily enough to demonstrate that the accommodation requested is not reasonable. However, the employee who requests an accommodation that conflicts with a seniority system can attempt to present special circumstances that would make trumping the seniority rule reasonable in that particular situation.

    Practical Significance

    The burden will be on employees to explain why ignoring an established seniority system is a reasonable accommodation. Note, however, that in refusing to make such an accommodation, the refusal to accommodate must be based on an actual violation rather than a potential violation of the seniority system.