Supreme Court Watch: Nearsightedness, Hypertension, and Monocular Vision: What is a Disability Under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

In 1999, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in three cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that illustrate a split among lower courts on the issue of what qualifies as a disability under the Act.

A. Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 130 F.3d 893 (10th Cir. 1997).

In Sutton, plaintiffs, employed as commercial airline pilots for a regional commuter airline, applied for a commercial pilot position with United Air Lines. At their interviews plaintiffs were informed that their uncorrected vision disqualified them from pilot positions with United. United required applicants to have uncorrected vision of 20/100 or better in each eye. Plaintiffs' had uncorrected vision of 20/200 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left eye.

Plaintiffs brought an ADA claim against United, alleging that United discriminated against them in rejecting their applications because their uncorrected vision amounted to a disability, and/or because United regarded them as disabled. Plaintiffs asserted that their disability substantially limits the major life activity of sight. They further asserted the vision limitations are permanent and that without correction they would be unable to see well enough to conduct normal everyday activities. Plaintiffs asserted that United's policy excludes them from an entire class of employment without any objective evidence of job relatedness.

United filed a motion to dismiss that was granted by the District Court. The District Court held that plaintiffs were not disabled within the meaning of the ADA because their vision did not substantially limit a major life activity. Plaintiffs appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the District Court.

The Court of Appeals noted that to establish a claim under the ADA, plaintiffs must demonstrate:

  1. they are disabled persons within the meaning of the ADA;
  2. they are qualified, i.e. able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation (which they must describe); and
  3. the employer discriminated against them in its employment decision because of their alleged disability.

Finding that the plaintiffs demonstrated items 2 and 3, the Court addressed whether plaintiffs' vision qualified them as "individuals with a disability" within the meaning of the ADA.

The Court held that the ADA defines a "disability" as:

  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual;
  • a record of such impairment; or
  • being regarded as having such an impairment.

The Court noted that "the impairment must be significant, and not merely trivial." The Court held that in this case (A) and (C) were in dispute. Under prong (A) the Court held that while plaintiffs suffered from a physical impairment, the impairment did not "substantially limit" one or more of plaintiffs' major life activities.

The Court concluded that plaintiffs' impairment must be considered in light of the mitigating or corrective measures utilized by the individual. In so holding, the Court joined those appellate Courts that have rejected the EEOC's interpretative guideline providing that " the determination of whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity must be made on a case by case basis, without regard to mitigating measures such as medicines, or assistive or prosthetic devices." Rather the Court held that it is the "actual effect on the individual's life that is important in determining whether an individual is disabled under the ADA." The Court reasoned that plaintiffs cannot have it both ways - they are either disabled because their uncorrected vision restricts a major life activity and are not qualified for a pilot position with United or they are qualified for the position because their vision is correctable and does not substantially limit a major life activity. The Court held that plaintiffs were not disabled.

Under prong (C) plaintiffs contended that United perceives them as unfit to work as global airline pilots and, therefore, the ADA applies. The Court held that plaintiffs must establish that United regarded them as being substantially limited in performing either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes. In other words, plaintiffs must show that United regarded them as unfit for any type of pilot position and that such belief by United imposed a significant restriction on their ability to perform a class of jobs.

The Court held that plaintiffs could not establish that their physical impairment prevented them from working in a class of jobs but only from working for United as a pilot--a single, particular job. The class was defined by the Court as including to all pilot positions at global airlines, national airlines, commuter/regional airlines, and cargo/courier airlines. The Court stated that a person who could not be a commercial pilot due to a minor vision impairment but who could be a commuter airline co-pilot or pilot for a courier service would not be substantially limited in the major life activity of working.

Finally, the Court opined: "[w]e refuse to construe the ... Act as a handout to those who are in fact capable of working in substantially similar jobs....".

B. Vaughn L. Murphy v. United Parcel Service, 141 F.3d 1185 (10th Cir. 1998).

In Murphy, plaintiff suffers from high blood pressure/hypertension and takes medication to control his condition. Plaintiff applied for a position with United Parcel Service (UPS) for a position as a mechanic. UPS requires mechanics to hold a commercial driver's license because they are required to drive large trucks, to perform road tests, and road calls. In order to qualify for a mechanic position an applicant must obtain a Department of Transportation (DOT) health card. Plaintiff submitted to a physical exam which revealed his blood pressure to be 186/124. Without medication plaintiff's blood pressure is 250/160. Plaintiff was issued a health card and began working for UPS.

A UPS company nurse reviewing plaintiff's health record determined that his blood pressure was too high and did not meet DOT requirements. The DOT blood pressure standard for commercial drivers is at or below 160/90. UPS concluded that plaintiff's health card was issued in error. UPS terminated plaintiff because his blood pressure exceeded DOT safety standards.

Plaintiff brought a claim against UPS under the ADA alleging he was entitled to protection. Plaintiff alleged that UPS regarded him as having an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity and terminated him based upon a stereotypical view that it is too risky to employ individuals with high blood pressure because they are prone to heart attacks and strokes. Plaintiff argued that he was entitled to a reasonable accommodation in the form of a temporary certification to give him time to bring his blood pressure down.

The District Court granted UPS's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

In doing so, the Court of Appeals referred to its decision in Sutton, discussed above, noting that whether plaintiff's high blood pressure substantially limits a major life activity should be considered in its medicated state. It held that the District Court was correct in ruling that plaintiff was not disabled in light of the availability of medication to control his high blood pressure. The Court noted that plaintiff's own doctor testified that plaintiff functions normally doing everyday activity when his high blood pressure is medicated. The Court held that plaintiff's high blood pressure does not substantially limit a major life activity and, accordingly, he is not disabled.

Nevertheless, the Court noted that plaintiff may still be entitled to the protection of the ADA if an employer regarded him as having an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The Court held that plaintiff was terminated because his blood pressure did not meet the DOT's requirements, not because of an unsubstantiated fear he would suffer a heart attack or a stroke. Accordingly, the Court held that plaintiff was not discriminated against. Further, because the Court concluded plaintiff did not have a disability, he was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation in the form of a temporary certification.

C. Hallie Kirkinburg v. Albertson's Inc., 143 F.2d 1228 (9th Cir. 1998).

In Kirkinburg, a truck driver filed an ADA claim against his employer, Albertson's, Inc., alleging that Alberston's discriminated against him because of his visual disability. Plaintiff has 20/200 vision in his left eye due to amblyopia, "lazy eye", which cannot be corrected. However, plaintiff has a visual acuity rating of 20/20 in his right eye.

Plaintiff had been driving commercial trucks since 1979 and had an excellent driving record. In 1990, Albertson's hired plaintiff as a commercial truck driver. A physician certified that plaintiff met the requirements established by the DOT. Plaintiff also performed well in a road test. In 1991, plaintiff suffered a non-driving, work-related injury when he fell from a truck. He was out of work for approximately a year. Plaintiff was required by Albertson's to obtain re-certification under the DOT standards. In 1992, plaintiff was examined by a physician who refused to certify him under the DOT regulations.

Plaintiff filed for a waiver of the regular vision requirements under the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) vision waiver program. The waiver program is an experimental program implemented to study the performance of visually impaired drivers. Plaintiff informed Albertson's that he had applied for a waiver, but Albertson's explained that it would not accept a waiver because it had a policy of employing only drivers who meet or exceed the DOT vision standards. Albertson's terminated plaintiff from his position as a truck driver but offered plaintiff a non-driving position. Plaintiff rejected the non-driving position and obtained the FHWA waiver some months later. Albertson's refused to reconsider his termination.

The District Court granted Albertson's motion for summary judgment holding that plaintiff is not disabled under the ADA nor otherwise a qualified individual. Plaintiff appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the District Court.

The Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether plaintiff was disabled and otherwise a qualified individual. The Court noted that an impairment is substantially limiting if it significantly restricts the "manner" which an individual can perform a major life activity. The Court held that because plaintiff's vision is limited to one eye and most people have vision in both eyes, the manner in which he sees is significantly restricted and, therefore, he is disabled. The Court held that the ADA was "not drafted narrowly to protect only those with severe disabilities" but was drafted with broad language to protect a large class of physically impaired individuals from unwarranted discrimination.

The Court determined that the FHWA waiver program is part of federal law and is consistent with the ADA. Because plaintiff was a participant in the waiver program, Albertson's could not adhere to only a part of the regulations and ignore the waiver program. The Court also noted that the FHWA waiver program had been deemed a success by FHWA. A justice dissenting from the majority opinion contested the conclusion that the program was part of the regulations and noted that it had not, in fact, been successful.

Finally, the Court held that an individual must show not only that he is disabled, but that he is qualified for the job in spite of his impairment. The Court addressed the safety issue and Albertson's contention that it could have more stringent safety requirements then DOT. The Court held that drivers who qualify for the waiver program have established their safety and do not pose a threat. Denying a monocular vision driver the opportunity to work, in spite of his demonstrated ability to perform the job safely through participation in the waiver program, is precisely the sort of discrimination the ADA sought to abolish. The Court held that the waiver program precludes an employer from declaring that persons determined by the DOT to be capable of performing the job of commercial truck driver, are incapable of performing that job by virtue of their disability.

*article courtesy of Gibbes Burton LLC.