U.S. Supreme Court Further Constricts Power of the ADA

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Lambda criticizes ruling that limits employee protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act
January 9, 2002

(NEW YORK, January 9, 2002) — The United States Supreme Court ruling in Toyota v. Williams, refusing to recognize workplace-related limitations, further erodes the definition of “disability” and the strength of employee protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Wednesday.

Lambda AIDS Project Director Catherine A. Hanssens, who worked on an amicus brief for the case and is an expert on the ADA said, “The Supreme Court has managed to make the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act an ever smaller moving target, one that is moving farther from what Congress intended and what common sense would dictate in determining the scope of the law’s protections.”

The 9-0 decision Tuesday overturns an earlier victory for a Kentucky auto worker with severe carpal tunnel syndrome who challenged Toyota’s refusal to accommodate her disability. The Court ruled that she did not show that the limitations on her ability to perform “manual tasks” substantially limited a major life activity. The Court defined such a substantial limitation as being severely restricted from doing those things that are “of central importance to everyday life.”

“The drafters of the ADA never contemplated that this level of scrutiny, complicated by the necessarily subjective task of determining what is ‘centrally important’ in a person’s life, would precede a determination that someone is covered by the Act. Nowhere near this amount of attention gets focused on the employer’s discriminatory conduct in these cases. In fact, more often than not, the merits of the case are never reached,” Hanssens noted.

Application of the Court’s reasoning to a person with HIV could leave many without a viable legal remedy for a wide range of discriminatory exclusions from work and social activities. For example, an adolescent newly diagnosed with HIV whose “central” life activities remain largely unaffected could face insurmountable difficulties passing the court’s disability test, particularly since the major life activity the Court has recognized to date as affected by HIV, reproduction, may not be considered sufficiently “major” for a young person by the Court’s conservative members.

“What type of evidence will the Court require in order to show that a ‘central life activity’ of an adolescent with HIV has been impaired when the kid is thrown out of a summer camp? This decision just increases the burden on people with HIV who want to challenge discriminatory treatment in court,” Hanssens added.

Lambda Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow observed, “The High Court’s reading of the ADA, in which the inability to do tasks associated with lifting one’s arms is rendered too unimportant to be a covered ‘major life activity,’ has produced a result in which an employee who is afflicted with severe carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of her assembly line job is considered too disabled to keep her job but not disabled enough to be covered by the ADA.”

Toyota was battling Williams, a former employee who developed carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis after working many years on one of the corporation’s assembly lines. When Williams could no longer do work that required keeping her arms raised for extended periods of time, Toyota initially complied with the ADA and reassigned her. However, Toyota later added tasks to her job that eventually rendered her unable to work, at which point Toyota fired her.

Lambda was part of the legal team that submitted an amicus brief on behalf of a dozen disability rights organizations, including the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. The brief was drafted by John Rich of Shea and Gardner in Washington, D.C.

Lambda is the oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to advancing the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS. Lambda has its headquarters in New York, regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, and will open an office in Dallas in mid-2002.

(Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, No. 00-1089)

Contact: Jennifer Grissom 212-809-8585 x 231, 888-987-1976
Catherine Hanssens 212-809-8585 x 215


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