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March 31, 2009

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Of all the decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court during its 1998-1999 term, none impacts the workplace more than those dealing with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Below, we take a brief look at the statute, and then turn to the closely-watched cases that ultimately narrowed the ADA's scope.

The statute

Signed into law on July 26, 1990, the ADA, broadly stated, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, programs and services provided by state and local government, goods and services provided by private companies, and in commercial facilities. The law defines "disability" as an impairment that "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities." At the time of the law was passed, Congress counted 43 million Americans with a disability.

To achieve its goals, the ADA sets forth a wide range of requirements, including alteration of buildings and facilities, improvement of access to programs offered by governments, and modification of policies and practices that may be discriminatory against persons with disabilities. One of the most controversial portions of the ADA: the requirement that businesses with over 15 employees make "reasonable accommodations for employees with a disability."

~The cases

The ADA cases before the Supreme Court in 1999, however, left accommodations aside, focusing instead on the rather fundamental notion of "disability." Simply put, the Court needed to define the legal threshold for having a disability under the ADA, and to determine whether individuals whose conditions could be medically corrected qualified for the statute's protection. Naturally, the litigation pitted those advocating a narrow reading against those advocating a broad reading. The stakes were large - experts suggested that expanding the definition of disability would expand the number of Americans with a disability from 43 million to 160 million.

The key matter before the court was Sutton v. United Airlines. Two sisters, both regional pilots, sued United after getting turned down for employment because their eyesight did not meet the airline's 20/100 vision requirement. Both sisters wear glasses that give them 20/20 vision.

The Court ultimately ruled that sisters did not have a disability under the ADA. Relying on three provisions within the ADA, the Court majority held that mitigating measures (such as wearing glasses) must be considered in determining whether one is "substantially limited" in life activities. As the sisters' enjoyed 20/20 vision with glasses, they thus had no disabilities claim under the ADA.

Having thus held, the Court then upheld the dismissal of the other two cases: Murphy v. United Parcel Service, and Albertson's Inc. v. Kirkinburg. In the first, a mechanic sued his employer after he was dismissed for having high blood pressure. In the second, a company had refused to hire a commercial truck driver with vision in only one eye.~

Case closed?

Of course, the Sutton ruling disappointed disability advocates, and warmed the hearts of most employers, who worried that an expansive reading of the "disability" would open the floodgates of discrimination suits. Other observers, however, weren't so convinced that the floodgates had been closed. For example, Anthony Haller, an employment specialist with Philadelphia's Pepper Hamilton, argued in The Legal Intelligencer that "the only thing certain in the aftermath of the decisions is that individuals will attempt to circumvent the Court's not-so-subtle efforts to reduce the scope of the ADA."

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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