Supreme Court Decisions Narrow Definition of Disability
Since its enactment in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") has protected disabled individuals from discrimination in the workplace or in places of public accommodation. Although the statute protects only disabled individuals, it is not always clear who is disabled. In several recent decisions interpreting the ADA, the United States Supreme Court has significantly narrowed the class of individuals who will qualify for protection against discrimination based on disability.
An individual is disabled under the ADA only if he or she is substantially limited in the ability to perform a "major life activity." Examples of major life activities include walking, seeing, and working. In Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., the Supreme Court recently considered the ADA claims of twin sisters who were denied employment as commercial pilots by United Air Lines because of their severe vision problems. Without corrective lenses, each plaintiff had 20/200 vision or worse in one eye and 20/400 or worse in the other eye. Thus, without corrective lenses each was substantially limited in the major life activity of seeing. The Supreme Court concluded, however, that the sisters were not disabled because with corrective lenses they were not substantially limited in any major life activity, including seeing and working. Similarly, in Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the Court concluded that a mechanic fired by UPS because of his hypertension was not disabled because the effects of his hypertension were corrected by medication.
Although the effect of corrective measures is to be considered in determining whether an individual is disabled, it is not an absolute bar to a finding of disability. For example, an individual who was able to control the limiting effects of his impairment through medication might, nevertheless, be disabled if the debilitating side effects of the medication left him substantially limited in the ability to work.
Even if an individual is not actually disabled because of the mitigating effects of measures such as eyeglasses or medication, the Supreme Court has made it clear that she would still be protected by the ADA if she was "regarded as" disabled by her employer. However, in order to show that she was regarded as disabled, a plaintiff would have to show that her employer regarded her as substantially limited in the ability to perform a specific major life activity. None of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court cases considered above were able to establish this, but it remains an option for plaintiffs who are perceived as being substantially limited in a major life activity, despite the fact that they are not actually limited due to the mitigating effects of medication.
Many have argued that the receipt of disability benefits and recovery on an ADA claim are mutually exclusive options, only one of which is available to any single disabled individual. An employee who receives disability benefits must demonstrate that he is disabled and unable to work. In contrast, a successful ADA claimant must demonstrate that he is able to perform the essential functions of the job he was denied. Despite these apparent inconsistencies, in Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., the Supreme Court recently concluded that an individual's application for, and receipt of, disability benefits does not necessarily preclude him from succeeding under the ADA.
Although the receipt of disability benefits does not preclude a successful ADA claim, a recipient's ADA claim will survive only if the recipient can explain why his eligibility for disability benefits is consistent with his claim that he is qualified for employment. Thus, the receipt of disability benefits will continue to pose a serious obstacle to an individual seeking the protections of the ADA.