Supreme Court to hear Two Cases Involving Interpretation of ADA

Date: October 23, 2001
The United States Supreme Court has agreed to review whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) protects people with limited disabilities, such as repetitive-motion injuries, and whether the law requires employers to ignore seniority systems to accommodate disabled workers. The issues are presented in a pair of cases the high court will decide in the term beginning in October. In recent years, the court has narrowed the definition of who is covered under the law, ruling that it doesn’t apply to correctable conditions, such as vision impairment that can be improved with eyeglasses, or ailments that can be controlled with medication, such as high blood pressure. About 25,000 to 30,000 employees a year lose work time because of carpal-tunnel syndrome, a repetitive-motion injury of the wrist. Forcing employers to choose whether to accommodate disabled workers or seniority rights could produce serious labor management strains. One of the two cases to be reviewed involves Ella Williams. In 1990, she went to work on a Toyota Motor Corp. assembly line in Georgetown, Kentucky. Within months, according to her attorneys, she developed carpal-tunnel syndrome and tendinitis in her neck and arms. Though the auto maker assigned her to a different job, involving quality-control inspections, her problems returned. When Ms. Williams refused to continue in a different quality-control job, her employment was terminated. She sued the company under the ADA, claiming the auto maker failed to make a reasonable accommodation for her condition. The 1990 law defines “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.” Toyota claimed Ms. Williams remained “perfectly capable of executing a host of manual tasks.” A U.S. District Court granted the company’s Motion for Summary Judgment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled that Ms. Williams was disabled, as defined by the ADA. The other ADA case involves Robert Barnett, a US Airways Group Inc. cargo area employee who injured his back on the job in 1990. He sought to transfer to a position in the mail room, but under the company’s seniority policy, that and some other positions were opened to bidding based on seniority. The airline offered Mr. Barnett a temporary mail room slot, but said that, based on seniority, they couldn’t keep a permanent position for him there. He was told he would be put on job-injury leave, because his injury prevented him from returning to work in the cargo area to which his seniority entitled him. In late 1994 he filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California under the ADA, arguing the airline failed to find a reasonable accommodation. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of US Airways, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled the company should have made an exception to its seniority policy to let him have a permanent job in the mail room. We will report the outcome of these cases upon issuance of decisions by the Supreme Court.