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Supreme Court Tightens the Reins on Who Is Disabled Under the ADA

By Francis P. Alvarez
  • January 9, 2002

With its unanimous January 8 decision rejecting the discrimination claim of a terminated employee with carpal tunnel syndrome, the U. S. Supreme Court has returned to the basic building blocks of the Americans with Disabilities Act in determining who is "disabled." In her opening statement for the Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recited the Act's definition of "disability" as "a physical impairment that 'substantially limits one or more ... major life activities'." Indeed, the Court's decision hinges on the plain meaning of those few words in delivering an important victory for employers, one that underscores the importance of training for managers and supervisors who make the decisions that continue to be scrutinized on an individualized, case-by-case basis in disability discrimination litigation.

The decision in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams is good news for employers and is being hailed as another victory in a line of important decisions narrowing the scope of the ADA and making it more difficult for individuals to pursue claims of disability discrimination. The magnitude of the victory, however, remains uncertain. "It is a victory, but it must have a bittersweet taste for Toyota," commented Frank Alvarez, a Jackson Lewis partner responsible for coordinating the firm's disability management practice. "You have to ask whether Toyota really has won anything. The case is still not over, and Toyota had already settled a workers' compensation claim and ADA charge filed by Ms. Williams before this lawsuit began."

Yet, the debate concerning an employer's legal obligation to employees who cannot work due to injuries or illness continues to confound interests on all sides of the aisle. The Williams case will continue to have a life as it heads back to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for reconsideration of Ms. Williams's ADA claims based on a more restrictive view of the definition of "disability." Michael Lotito, Jackson Lewis partner and former chair of the Society for Human Resource Management, whose involvement with the ADA dates back to its inception, said, "This case illustrates the risks posed by the interplay of the ADA, family and medical leave, and workers' compensation laws. Even employers like Toyota which go to great lengths to keep injured workers a productive part of the workforce can get snared in this trap."

How the Courts Viewed Williams's Inability to Perform Some Work Tasks

When assembly line employee Williams developed what was diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis restricting her ability to perform her job, she was assigned to modified duty jobs and eventually placed on a team of quality control inspectors. While Williams performed two of the four quality control tasks assigned to her team, Toyota eventually announced that team members needed to perform all four tasks. Williams requested a modification that would have removed the additional tasks from her job. The parties disagree about what happened next, but ultimately Williams began to miss work on a regular basis. When she eventually informed Toyota that she could no longer perform work of any kind, her employment was terminated based on her poor attendance record.

Williams filed a charge of disability discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and subsequently filed a lawsuit in federal district court. Among other things, she alleged the employer had violated her rights under the ADA by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation and by terminating her employment. The district court rejected Williams's claims that her inability to perform tasks such as gardening, doing housework and playing with children are major life activities. Although it agreed that performing manual tasks, lifting and working are major life activities, the court said there was not enough evidence that Williams was substantially limited in those activities since she insisted she could perform some of the tasks of the quality control inspectors. Based on this and other factors, the court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision of the lower court and found that Williams was disabled based on her inability to perform a "class" of manual activities involved with her work tasks. These tasks included gripping of tools and repetitive work with her hands and arms extended at or above shoulder levels for extended periods of time. The appeals court disregarded as irrelevant the evidence that Williams still was able to perform certain tasks associated with daily life, such as tending to personal hygiene and household chores. Further, the appeals court said it was not necessary to make a determination Williams was substantially limited in the major life activities of lifting or working since it had found her to be disabled.

The U. S. Supreme Court limited its review of the case to the proper legal standard for assessing whether an individual is substantially limited in performing manual tasks. It specifically did not consider what is the proper standard for assessing substantial limitations in the activities of working or lifting.

In reversing the Sixth Circuit's holding, the Supreme Court said it was error to analyze only Ms. Williams's inability to perform manual tasks associated with her job. "When addressing the major life activity of performing manual tasks, the central inquiry must be whether the claimant is unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people's daily lives, not whether the claimant is unable to perform the tasks associated with her specific job," said the Court. "Manual tasks unique to any particular job are not necessarily important parts of most people's lives. As a result, occupation specific tasks may have only limited relevance to the manual task inquiry."

Conversely, Williams was able to perform a variety of tasks central to most people's daily lives, such as brush her teeth, wash her face, bathe, tend her flower garden, fix breakfast, do laundry and pick up around the house. In the Court's words, "... household chores, bathing, and brushing one's teeth are among the types of manual tasks of central importance to people's daily lives, and should have been part of the assessment of whether respondent was substantially limited in performing manual tasks."

The Court also noted that not everyone with carpal tunnel syndrome is disabled, and that each individual must be assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine whether he or she is protected by the ADA. Both the severity and the duration of the symptoms of CTS vary, and the Court advised the lower courts to look closely at impairments that are not permanent, since to be disabled under the ADA, the impact of the impairment must be "permanent or long term."

What the Court Did Not Decide

In addition to what the Supreme Court decided in this case, there are a number of issues that it did not decide and which will likely become important in the litigation that will surely follow. Since the Court remanded the Williams case back to the appeals court for further consideration, the issues of whether she was substantially limited in the major life activities of working or lifting -- not part of the Court's review here -- may resurface. Also, a major issue in Ms. Williams's lawsuit was whether the employer had failed to provide a reasonable accommodation. That issue was not reached by any of the courts to date and may very well come into play on the next round.

Another key issue in the Williams lawsuit involved her claim that her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act had been violated when the employer failed to give her the required FMLA notice. That element of the case had been dismissed by the lower courts and never reached the Supreme Court in this case. However, just one day prior to the decision in this case, the Supreme Court heard arguments in another case on the notice requirements under the FMLA. The decision in that case might affect later proceedings on the FMLA claim in the Williams case.

What Employers Should Be Doing Now

The Williams case illustrates how complicated ADA litigation can be. Even though the employer was handed a unanimous favorable decision by the U. S. Supreme Court, it might just be beginning. Employers have fared well in the Supreme Court's review of lower court decisions interpreting the ADA, but the best position for employers is to avoid the courthouse rather than wage a protracted battle that could last many years. The best strategy is one that prevents litigation through a concerted and coordinated disability management program. Among other things, this means:

  • understanding the legal obligations to provide leaves of absence, including the interplay between the ADA, FMLA and workers' compensation laws;
  • identifying essential job functions and communicating this information to supervisors and employees;
  • drafting effective policies and procedures and training managers on how to respond to employee requests for leaves of absence and reasonable accommodation;
  • training managers and supervisors to recognize medical conditions that might impose ADA or FMLA obligations;
  • engaging in an interactive dialogue with employees to identify creative ways to keep them employed;
  • developing form letters that can be tailored to specific facts for communicating with health care providers and employees;
  • working with medical professionals to obtain objective input on the functional limitations posed by impairments and potential accommodation; and
  • considering options that keep employees working when they are unable to perform their original positions, such as reassignment to vacant posts.

Individualized Assessments: A Microscope Approach?

The ADA also requires employers to conduct individualized assessments of individuals who claim a disability or request an accommodation. This involves communication among managers, health care providers, and employees about the precise nature of the work-related limitations posed by the injury or illness and is critical to working through the maze of ADA, FMLA, and workers' compensation requirements and laws. Documenting all of the steps in the disability management process is key to making the process work and verifying the employer's good faith efforts to do the right thing.

According to the Supreme Court's emphasis on determining whether an impairment prevents or severely restricts activities that are "of central important to most people's daily lives," an examination of the more intimate details of an individual's life could be required. "After this decision," Mr. Alvarez notes, "employers will be entitled to put employees' activities outside the workplace under a microscope in an effort to determine whether they are 'disabled' under the ADA. Expect employees to ask 'what does this have to do with my job?'"

All of this adds to the challenge for employers. "Individualized assessment cautions management to 'be patient' and 'take your time'," notes Mr. Lotito. "For employers moving fast to compete in today's sluggish economy, slowing down does not seem to be consistent with maintaining profitability. However, the costs in terms of time, resources, and money in defending a charge of disability discrimination potentially are much more damaging."

In the end, the ADA is not a guarantee of continued employment for individuals who are not "disabled" under the statute or who are unable or unwilling to perform essential job functions with reasonable accommodations. What the ADA requires of employers is to engage in a process for evaluating whether an individual is disabled and, if so, while recognizing the disability and its limitations, conduct a dialogue with that individual and make reasonable efforts to keep him or her a productive part of the workforce.

For More Information

The Jackson Lewis Disability Management Practice Group is available to assist employers in complying with the complex legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Family and Medical leave Act and other federal or state laws implicated by employee injuries and illnesses.

©2002 Jackson Lewis P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between Jackson Lewis and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. This material may be considered attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Reproduction of this material in whole or in part is prohibited without the express prior written consent of Jackson Lewis P.C., a law firm that built its reputation on providing workplace law representation to management. Founded in 1958, the firm has grown to more than 900 attorneys in major cities nationwide serving clients across a wide range of practices and industries including government relations, healthcare and sports law. More information about Jackson Lewis can be found at www.jacksonlewis.com.

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