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Published: 2008-03-26

Disabled Golfer Case Has Implications for Employers



Martin v. PGA Tour, Inc., the case involving the Professional Golf Association's attempt to prevent Casey Martin, a disabled professional golfer, from using a golf cart in PGA competitions, generated significant public interest and intense debate among sports fans about the fundamental nature of golf and other

professional sports. In addition to the attention it drew on the sports pages, the analysis that the federal judge followed in ruling in Martin's favor on February 19, 1998, has implications for employers.

Martin, a 25-year-old former college teammate of golf prodigy Tiger Woods, has a rare circulatory disorder that affects his lower right leg. The leg is severely atrophied and weakened, and Martin risks fracturing his leg, hemorrhaging, or developing blood clots whenever he walks. Additionally, the leg causes him severe pain and constant discomfort. As his condition regresses, amputation may eventually become necessary.

Although he is obviously an excellent golfer and currently playing on the PGA's minor-league Nike Tour, Martin's disability prevents him from walking between holes and to and from his shots. In order to continue playing on the Nike Tour and progressing to the PGA Tour, which require players to walk during competition, Martin requested that the PGA allow him to use a golf cart. The PGA refused, and Martin filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, alleging that the PGA had discriminated against him by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability in violation of the public accommodation provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In defending Martin's lawsuit, the PGA first argued that the ADA did not apply to professional golf tournaments. Second, the PGA maintained that because walking is a substantive rule of competition, a waiver of that rule would fundamentally alter the competitions that involved Martin. The ADA does not require a public accommodation to fundamentally alter its services or operations to accommodate disabled individuals.

The court rejected these arguments. First, it ruled that the PGA was a public accommodation covered by the ADA. Next, the court refused to accept the PGA's "fundamental alteration" arguments at face value, and performed an exhaustive analysis of the game's rules and the impact of walking on the shot-making aspects of golf. The court noted that, for the purposes of the ADA, mere tradition itself had no bearing on whether walking was a fundamental part of the PGA's golf tournaments. Further, the court found nothing in the Rules of Golf promulgated by the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, which required or defined walking as part of the game. The court also took notice that the PGA already permitted competitors to use golf carts in two of the four events it stages - the Senior PGA Tour and the PGA Qualifying School Tournament.

The PGA then attempted to argue that the purpose of the walking rule was to inject an element of fatigue into the skill of shot-making. The court disagreed, citing a physiology professor's testimony that the fatigue players felt from walking during a round of golf was "nutritionally less than a Big Mac" and otherwise insignificant under normal circumstances. The court also noted that most players on the Senior Tour and in the Qualifying School Tournament, in which golf carts are optional, have chosen to walk the course, rather than ride in a cart. If the fatigue factor were of any real significance, the court reasoned, more players in those tournaments would choose to ride carts. Thus, the court found that using a cart would give Martin absolutely no competitive advantage, and allowing Martin to use the cart was "eminently reasonable" in light of his disability. The ruling only applies to Martin, and does not obligate the PGA to provide golf carts to any other professional golfers with disabilities.

Although Martin v. PGA Tour was decided under the public accommodation provisions of the ADA rather than under the provisions which apply to discrimination in employment, the court's analysis is easily transferred to the employment realm. Employers are not required to provide an accommodation to a disabled employee that would alter the essential functions, or the fundamental nature of a job. However, the courts are in no way bound by an employer's assessment of which tasks and duties are "essential" or "fundamental" to any particular job, and employers should expect that a failure to provide a requested accommodation that appearsreasonable on its face will receive the same scrutiny as the PGA's walking rule.

The PGA's inability to cite rules or other written evidence to suggest that walking is an essential part of the game of golf was fatal to its arguments that providing Martin a golf cart would fundamentally alter its competitions. Employers can help avoid a similar fate by carefully analyzing the physical requirements of each job and preparing detailed written job descriptions that separate the truly essential physical requirements of a position from the occasional and more marginal functions of the job.