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Published: 2008-03-26

U.S. Supreme Court clarifies who is disabled Under the ADA



In its recently concluded term, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down four decisions examining whether employees with various impairments were covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In three cases, the Court decided that the law generally does not protect people with impairments that can be easily corrected, such as poor eyesight or high blood pressure. According to the Court, the employees in those cases were not substantially limited in any major life activities, and their employers did not regard them as having substantial limitations. In the fourth case, the Court decided that a worker who applies for disability benefits may still be a qualified individual with a disability protected by the ADA.

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a "qualified individual with a disability." A "disability" is defined as an impairment that substantially limits an individual in one or more major life activities - such as walking, lifting, talking, seeing, and breathing, among others. A "qualified individual" is one who can perform the essential functions of a job with reasonable accommodation. The ADA also protects workers who are erroneously "regarded as" being disabled. The new Supreme Court decisions will help employers answer the threshold question in dealing with an applicant or employee with a physical or mental impairment - is the person protected by the ADA?

Workers with Correctable Impairments Are Normally Not Disabled Under the ADA. The three "corrective measures" decisions were issued on June 22, 1999. In the first decision, Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., two severely nearsighted sisters alleged that the airline discriminated against them on the basis of their "disability" when it refused to hire them as commercial airline pilots. With corrective lenses, the sisters had 20/20 vision. However, they did not meet United's requirement of uncorrected vision of 20/100 or better for commercial pilots.

In deciding that the sisters were not protected by the ADA, the Court noted that when Congress passed the ADA, it found that "some 43 million Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities." If the ADA were intended to cover people without regard to corrective measures, the Court reasoned, Congress would have cited a much higher figure. The Court also ruled that the sisters were not "regarded as" being substantially limited in a major life activity because United considered them qualified for jobs as pilot instructors or regional pilots and the sisters could offer no evidence that the company perceived them as being unable to perform those jobs.

In Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the Court held that a mechanic with medically-controlled high blood pressure was not an individual with a disability. As in the Sutton case, the Court found that as long as Murphy continued to take medication for his high blood pressure, he was not substantially limited in any major life activity - even though he likely would have been bedridden or hospitalized if he were not taking his medication.

The Court further ruled that UPS did not regard Murphy as substantially limited in the major life activity of working. Under U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, Murphy's high blood pressure excluded him from working as a mechanic on commercial vehicles because his job required him to road-test the vehicles he repaired. However, Murphy was still qualified to work in a variety of other mechanical jobs. Like the applicants in Sutton, he could offer no evidence that anyone at UPS perceived him as being unable to perform in these other mechanic positions.

The third case, Albertsons, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, involved a truck driver who was legally blind in his left eye. Although his condition could not be corrected with glasses or contact lenses, Kirkingburg's right eye compensated fairly well for the weakness. Kirkingburg alleged that he was limited in the major life activity of seeing because he could use only one eye. The Supreme Court found that, compared to the average individual, Kirkingburg's total vision was not substantially limited. According to the Court, the manner in which Kirkingburg saw was not particularly important, as long as his overall vision was not substantially limited compared to the average person's. The Court also ruled that Albertsons properly relied on Kirkingburg's inability to pass a DOT vision test as a legitimate reason for denying him employment as a commercial vehicle driver. The Court rejected Kirkingburg's argument that Albertsons could not rely on the DOT standards unless it could prove that following the standards was necessary to prevent a direct threat to the health or safety of Kirkingburg or others.

Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits Does Not Necessarily Bar ADA Claim. In Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp. (PMSC) (May 24, 1999), the Court ruled that lower courts cannot presume that a worker who represents that he is totally disabled in an application for disability benefits is automatically not a qualified individual with a disability.

Cleveland began working for the Dallas office of South Carolina-based PMSC in 1993. After suffering a stroke in January 1994, she took a leave of absence and applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). In her application for benefits, she represented that she was completely "disabled" and "unable to work." In July 1994, her doctor cleared her to return to work. After she returned to the job, Cleveland experienced performance problems and requested several accommodations. PMSC denied her accommodation requests and terminated her employment.

Following her termination, Cleveland reapplied for Social Security benefits,stating that she "continue[d] to be disabled" and that she was "unable to work due to [her] disability." The Social Security Administration (SSA) awarded her benefits retroactive to January 1994. At approximately the same time she received her SSDI award, Cleveland sued, alleging that PMSC discriminated against her on the basis of her disability. In the ADA lawsuit, PMSC argued that Cleveland couldn't "double dip" by representing that she was too disabled to work, while at the same time arguing that she was a qualified individual with a disability who could perform the essential functions of her job at PMSC.

Rejecting PMSC's argument, the Court observed that there are situations in which an SSDI claim and an ADA claim can both proceed because the SSA does not take into account whether a reasonable accommodation would allow a disabled employee to do her job. For example, an employee can claim that she is disabled for SSDI purposes and still argue that she could return to work if her employer would provide a reasonable accommodation.

Nonetheless, the Court noted that employees will still be required to explain any inconsistencies between statements in disability applications and their claims that they are qualified to perform essential job functions. If an employee cannot provide a sufficient explanation, the employer may raise the "double dipping" defense and have the case dismissed prior to trial.

These four decisions clarify some of the factors employers may consider in deciding whether an applicant or employee is a qualified individual with a disability entitled to protection under the ADA. Before taking steps to provide costly or potentially disruptive accommodations, employers should carefully consider whether the person requesting the accommodation is truly "substantially limited" in a major life activity and whether the person will be able to perform essential job functions if provided an accommodation.