Defining Disability Under the ADA

Supreme Court prompts more questions

2002 Volume 5 Issue 1

The Supreme Court narrows the definition of disability, but employers still need to consider individual details and circumstances in each ADA request. California law still more expansive than federal law.

Carpal tunnel syndrome or other job-related impairments may not be enough of a disability to qualify for the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. Although a victory for employers generally, this new ruling on the ADA may not help California businesses.

Sound confusing? It clearly is, as courts continue to unravel the exact meaning of the 1990 federal law designed to protect the disabled from discrimination, in the workplace or elsewhere. Obviously, a threshold question is the meaning of “disability.” The law’s own definition (“a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities”) actually raises more questions than it answers.

The Latest Court Decision

In recent years, the Supreme Court has used a series of cases to narrow the meaning of disability, and thus the number of employees that the law covers. Its unanimous decision of January 8 in Toyota v. Williams could be the most important such ruling to date. (For more background on this case, as well as other business-related cases before the Supreme Court this term, see “Supreme Court Faces Key Business Cases,” in the last issue of GBR.)

Ella Williams was an autoworker whose carpal tunnel syndrome and related conditions prevented her from performing some, but not all, of her assigned tasks on an assembly line. There was no dispute that Williams suffered from a physical impairment, but the Supreme Court concluded that she had not proven she was substantially limited in a major life activity. Williams based her claim on the major life activity of “performing manual tasks,” as she could not perform tasks such as gripping tools or repetitive work with her hands and arms. While the court agreed that performing manual tasks is a major life activity (walking, seeing, and hearing are three other examples), it avoided the tougher question of whether working itself is a major life activity for the ADA law.

However, the court still narrowed the interpretation of disability, for Williams and for all employees. In a fairly broad statement, the court said that in order to be found substantially limited in performing manual tasks, “an individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives” (as opposed to only job-related activities). Significantly, the court added that the impairment’s effect “must also be permanent or long-term.” More generally, the opinion noted that the ADA’s terms “need to be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled.”

In the autoworker’s case, a lower court was held to have improperly judged her limits on performing manual tasks by looking only at job-related tasks. The Supreme Court said non-occupational tasks — such as household chores, bathing, or brushing one’s teeth — were of greater importance to daily lives and must also be considered. Williams was able to do many of these activities, and thus had not proved that she was disabled enough to qualify for the ADA. That meant Toyota did not have to provide reasonable accommodations for her condition.

What This Ruling Means for Business

In essence, the Supreme Court has decided that the inability to perform one specific job, or even the presence of a condition that might qualify an employee for medical disability or workers’ compensation, does not necessarily make an employee disabled enough to gain the strong protections of the ADA. To support this narrower view of disability, the court points out that Congress in passing the ADA found that 43 million Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities. A broader reading of the disability term would allow a much larger number of Americans to qualify.

However, the uncertainty is still far from over, as the opinion reiterated that ADA disability should be decided on an individualized, case-by-case basis. It is still possible that a different employee with carpal tunnel syndrome would be disabled under the ADA, if that employee was substantially limited on a long-term basis in “daily life” activities, not only in job tasks. An employer will need to consider the particular details and circumstances of each ADA request.

Moreover, state law may provide employees with greater protection than the federal ADA. That is the case in California, where recent amendments to the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, applying to most California employers, have greatly expanded the definition of disability. In California, the employee’s impairment must only “limit,” rather than “substantially limit,” a major life activity to meet the definition of disability. Further, California law says the definition of major life activities “should be broadly construed and includes physical, mental, and social activities and working.” Finally, rejecting a narrower interpretation of the ADA by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999, California law now provides that correctable conditions (such as high blood pressure or perhaps bad eyesight) might qualify as disabilities.

Of course, California courts will still have to interpret this new state law, which took effect at the beginning of 2001. But there is no question that far more employees will qualify as disabled and be entitled to reasonable accommodations under the more lenient California definition of disability.

About the Author(s)

Larry Bumgardner, JD, is an associate professor of business law at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management. Previously, he served as executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and the Reagan Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, California. A graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Law, he has also taught political science, public policy, and communications courses at Pepperdine.

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