Recent ADA Decisions

In three significant employment decisions released on June 22, 1999, the United States Supreme Court reviewed and refined the definition of "disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 42 U.S.C. § 12102. The Court declined to expand the ADA from persons whose impairments "substantially limit" a major life activity to employees whose conditions are improved by medication or corrective devices such as eyeglasses.

In Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., [1999 WL 407488 (U.S.)], the Court held that mitigating measures must be taken into account in judging whether an individual has a disability. The petitioners were severely myopic twin sisters who were rejected by United Air Lines for employment as commercial airline pilots because they failed to meet United's minimum requirement for uncorrected vision of 20/100 or better. The sisters' uncorrected vision was 20/200 or worse, but with correction, it was 20/20. The Court found the sisters were not disabled under the ADA definition, because a disability exists only when it "'substantially limits' a major life activity, not where it 'might,' 'could,' or 'would' be substantially limiting if corrective measures were not taken."

In Albertson's, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, [1999 WL 407456 (U.S.)], Albertson's fired Kirkingburg for failing to meet Department of Transportation vision standards for commercial truckdrivers. The DOT basic vision standards require corrected visual acuity of at least 20/40 in each eye, but Kirkingburg has an uncorrectable condition that leaves him with 20/200 vision in his left eye. The Court held that an employer who requires as a job qualification that an employee must meet an otherwise applicable federal safety regulation does not have to justify enforcing the regulation as a business necessity under the ADA, even though the standard may be waived in an individual case. In addition, the Court held that Kirkingburg failed to prove that he had a disability in his individual case.

In Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc., [1999 WL 407472 (U.S.)] Murphy was fired from his job as a UPS mechanic, a position that required him to drive commercial vehicles, because UPS believed Murphy's high blood pressure violated DOT safety requirements. The DOT requirements for operating commercial vehicles included having "no current clinical diagnosis of high blood pressure likely to interfere with his/her ability to operate a commercial vehicle safely." 49 CFR § 391.41(b)(6). The Court held that Murphy was not "regarded" as being disabled under the ADA because at most, he was regarded as unable to perform the job of mechanic only when that job requires driving a commercial vehicle. He was not regarded as unable to perform a general class of jobs, and was generally employable as a mechanic.