United States: Supreme Court Restricts ADA Definition Of "Disability"

Last Updated: July 16 2001

By Phil Clements, Tahl Tyson, Anne Denecke and Liz Staggs-Wilson

Introduction

In June 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court drastically restricted the types of employees who are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). In three separate cases the Court ruled that the ADA does not apply to people with most correctable conditions, such as poor eyesight that can be improved with glasses, or high blood pressure that can be controlled with medication. The Court rejected EEOC guidelines that "disability" should be determined without regard to such mitigating measures. In a ruling viewed as a win for employers, not only did the Court clarify and limit which employees may claim ADA protection, the Court also affirmed the right of employers to rely on safety and other regulations to define job qualifications. These rulings will have immediate impact in states without state anti-discrimination laws. States with laws patterned after the ADA, such as Oregon, will likely follow the lead of the Supreme Court in narrowly construing the definition of disability. Employers in states whose laws do not track the federal model, such as Washington and California, will need to maintain compliance with their state law.

What Is A "Disability"?

The cases turn on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the term "disability" under the ADA. The ADA defines "disability" as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more . . . major life activities," or as " being regarded as having such an impairment."

The EEOC has issued regulations that define "physical impairment" as "any physiological disorder . . . affecting . . . special sense organs." The agency has defined the term "substantially limits" as "unable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform," and "major life activities" to mean functions such as walking, seeing, and even working. EEOC guidelines interpreting these regulations provide that the determination whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity must be made without regard to whether assistive devices or medication mitigate the limitation - an interpretation that was contested before the Supreme Court.

Sutton And Hinton v. United Airlines Inc.

Twin pilots Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton are substantially nearsighted but have 20/20 vision when wearing corrective lenses. United Airlines denied them jobs as global airline pilots under a company policy requiring uncorrected vision of 20/100 or better.

The Supreme Court held that the pilots were not "disabled" under the ADA. The Court reasoned that if a disability exists only where an impairment "substantially limits" a major life activity, this requires that there be a present limitation - not a potential or hypothetical one. The Court concluded that, if the pilots wore eyeglasses or contact lenses, they were not presently impaired in the major life activity of seeing. The fact that they "might," "could," or "would" be substantially limited without mitigating measures is irrelevant.

The Court considered also that the ADA requires an individualized inquiry into the question of disability. Evaluating a disability in an uncorrected state, as the EEOC guidelines required, would create a system in which persons were treated as members of a group of people with similar impairments, rather than as individuals. The Court found the EEOC guidelines inconsistent with this requirement of the ADA.

The Court also found support for its conclusion in the ADA's legislative history that approximately 43 million Americans are disabled, and that individuals with disabilities are a "discrete and insular minority subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness in our society." The Court reasoned that this 43 million figure indicated that Congress never intended that the ADA cover the estimated 160 million Americans with correctable impairments. Rather, Congress intended to restrict the ADA's coverage to a confined and historically disadvantaged class.

The sisters further argued that the airline "regarded" them as disabled because it mistakenly believed that their visual impairment substantially limited them in the major life activity of working. The Court rejected this argument as well. The airline, the Court held, only regarded them as unable to satisfy the requirements of a particular job: global airline pilot. Since there were a number of other positions in which they could utilize their piloting skills, such as regional pilot and pilot instructor, they were not substantially limited in working. The Court held that, when the major life activity under consideration is that of working, the ADA requires that one's disability to work be "substantially reduced." The Court called into question the EEOC regulation when it observed that defining major life activities to include "work" has the potential to make the ADA circular.

In addition, the Court held that the United Airlines eyesight requirements did not violate the ADA. The ADA permits an employer to prefer some physical attributes over others, so long as the employer does not make a decision based on a physical impairment, real or imagined, that is regarded as substantially limiting a major life activity. Accordingly, the employer is free to decide that some limiting - but not substantially limiting - impairments make individuals less than ideally suited for a job, just as it is free to decide that physical conditions that do not rise to the level of an impairment "such as one's height, build or singing voice," are preferable to others.

Murphy v. United Parcel Service.

In Murphy the Supreme Court fleshed out its Sutton ruling by applying the same principles to a case involving hypertension. Vaughn Murphy, a truck mechanic with severe hypertension, was fired by UPS after a company nurse noted that his blood pressure exceeded Department of Transportation ("DOT") criteria. UPS mechanics are required to maintain commercial driver's licenses and meet U.S. Department of Health criteria because they perform road tests and road calls on company vehicles.

Relying on Sutton, the Court reasoned that the determination of disability is made with reference to the mitigating measures used. Therefore, Murphy was not "disabled" under the ADA because, when medicated, his high blood pressure did not substantially limit him in any life activity, even though it still exceeded DOT standards.

The Court also found that UPS did not "regard" Murphy as disabled because of his high blood pressure. Murphy would have been "regarded as" disabled only if UPS had mistakenly believed that Murphy's condition substantially limited him from performing a class or broad range of jobs, not just a particular job. Despite his condition, Murphy could perform a range of mechanic jobs that did not require him to drive a commercial vehicle.

Kirkingburg v. Albertsons.

Hallie Kirkingburg is nearly blind in one eye. When he sought to return to work as a commercial truck driver for Albertsons supermarket after an unrelated medical leave, the company refused to certify him because of his monocular vision. Albertsons requires that all its drivers meet the applicable DOT safety regulation. Kirkingburg did not, and Albertsons fired him. The DOT regulation, however, provided for individual waivers. Kirkingburg applied to DOT and received a waiver of the vision requirement. Albertsons refused to accept the DOT waiver on safety grounds, and refused to reemploy Kirkingburg for failing to meet its minimum vision requirements.

The Supreme Court ruled that monocular vision was not a per se disability under the ADA. Rather, the ADA requires that individuals substantiate their disability on a case-by-case basis. Claimants must offer evidence that they suffer limitations on a major life activity in terms of their own experience.

The Court also confirmed that employers may rely on government safety requirements, such as DOT regulations, to establish job qualification despite the existence of a government waiver in a particular case. The Court reasoned that Congress, when it passed the ADA, could not have intended to burden employers with defending federal safety standards.

What Do These Supreme Court Decisions Mean For Employers?

These recent Supreme Court decisions significantly narrow the possible class of persons with ADA-covered disabilities. Employers across the country are greatly relieved: had the court ruled that disabling conditions must be considered without reference to mitigating factors such as eyeglasses or medication, the number and complexity of disability issues facing employers would have greatly expanded.

Distilled to their essence, the Court rulings clarified two important points: First, that an employee or applicant asserting a disability under the ADA must prove that he or she has a "substantial limitation" in a "major life activity" despite efforts to mitigate. Second, that employers may base job criteria on federal regulations even though it may exclude certain persons with disabilities from employment.

The Court did not address the issue whether a claimant may be disabled due to limitations that persist after medication, or as a result of the negative side effects of medication. The answer to both questions is likely "yes," but must be further clarified by the federal courts in light of these rulings.

These rulings have the greatest impact in states without their own anti-discrimination laws, or in which such laws are patterned after the federal model. For example, Oregon's anti-discrimination law closely parallels the ADA. Oregon law requires that a disability "substantially limit" a major life activity, including work. Oregon law also protects disabled individuals who have "a record of" such an impairment, or are "regarded as" having such an impairment. Decisions interpreting what constitutes a "physical or mental impairment" under Oregon law generally are consistent with the ADA, though there are no current guidelines in Oregon interpreting the effect of mitigating factors. While it is likely that the Oregon Courts will follow the Supreme Court's lead, Oregon employers will have to wait to see to what extent, if any, employers are allowed to take mitigating factors into account.

In contrast, many states have anti-discrimination laws that predate the ADA, and that have been interpreted or applied more liberally than the ADA. Under Washington law, for example, "disability" is defined as an "abnormal condition" that is the reason why the adverse employment decision was made. The Washington appellate courts have consistently interpreted this very circular definition of disability more broadly than the federal definition. Moreover, unlike the ADA, Washington law does not require that this condition "substantially limit" a major life activity. Conditions such as myopia, hypertension, and monocular vision would most likely constitute an "abnormal condition" under Washington law, and there is no state guidance on the effect of mitigating factors. Many employees excluded from ADA coverage by the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions are still likely entitled to protection under Washington law. Until the Washington courts or legislature address the issue, these recent cases will have little impact on disability discrimination claims under Washington law.

The new ADA decisions may also have little immediate impact on California employers. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA") definition of disability is similar to the ADA: a physical or mental impairment that "substantially impacts" a "major life activity." However, recently one California appellate court ruled that a mental impairment need not substantially impact a major life activity to be a "disability." Further, the California Supreme Court has held that employees may maintain common law claims for "workplace injury discrimination" if the injury rises to the level of a "disability." Unfortunately, the court offered no guidance as to what type of "disability" could give rise to such a common law claim. While the California courts might look to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions for guidance, in the meanwhile cautious California employers should interpret the term "disability" broadly to include virtually any type of workplace injury or mental impairment.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

 
In association with
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
Accounting and Audit
Anti-trust/Competition Law
Consumer Protection
Corporate/Commercial Law
Criminal Law
Employment and HR
Energy and Natural Resources
Environment
Family and Matrimonial
Finance and Banking
Food, Drugs, Healthcare, Life Sciences
Government, Public Sector
Immigration
Insolvency/Bankruptcy, Re-structuring
Insurance
Intellectual Property
International Law
Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
Media, Telecoms, IT, Entertainment
Privacy
Real Estate and Construction
Strategy
Tax
Transport
Wealth Management
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.