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U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Definition Of Disability

On June 22, 1999, the United States Supreme Court issued two decisions that significantly alter the application of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In Sutton v United Air Lines, Inc, and Murphy v United Parcel Service, Inc, the court ruled in 7-2 decisions that the determination of whether an individual is disabled under the ADA should be made with reference to measures that mitigate the individual's impairment. The decisions mean that people with disabilities that can be mitigated or corrected by medicine or medical devices may not claim protection from discrimination under the ADA.

Sutton involved severely myopic twin sisters who applied to United for employment as commercial pilots. Although both sisters had uncorrected visual acuity of 20/200 or worse, their vision was 20/20 with the use of eyeglasses. They were rejected for the positions, however, because they did not meet United's minimum requirement of uncorrected visual acuity of 20/100 or better. They then filed suit under the ADA claiming discrimination. In dismissing their claims the trial court reasoned that the sisters were not actually disabled under the Act because they could fully correct their visual impairments. The court also found that the sisters were not "regarded as" disabled by United. The airline, at most, regarded them as unable to perform one job and not a broad range of jobs. This reasoning was endorsed by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court examined the definition of "disability" in the Act. It determined that the ADA does not permit the evaluation of a person in his hypothetical uncorrected state:

"A 'disability' exists only where an impairment 'substantially limits' a major life activity, not where it 'might,' 'could,' or 'would' be substantially limiting if mitigating measures were not taken."

The court also ruled that individuals who are "regarded as" having a disability are disabled within the meaning of the ADA. The court noted, however, that the airline only excluded the sisters from one job because of their vision and that many other jobs were available to them. Thus, their allegation did not support their claim that United regarded them as having a substantially limiting impairment.

The court employed similar logic in affirming the dismissal of the plaintiff's ADA claim in Murphy. The plaintiff was employed as a mechanic, a position that required a commercial driver's license. He was fired when the employer discovered he could not obtain the necessary medical certificate from the Department of Transportation (DOT) due to his exceedingly high blood pressure. Because the plaintiff's condition was controllable with medication, the court concluded he was not disabled under the ADA.

Moreover, he was not "regarded as" disabled because of his inability to obtain a commercial license due to high blood pressure. According to the court, the employer regarded him as unable to work as a mechanic in jobs that required a commercial driver's license. There was ample evidence to show that he could perform mechanic jobs not requiring DOT certification.

Although the lesson from Sutton and Murphy is that mitigating circumstances must be considered in determining whether a person is disabled under the ADA, employers should continue to exercise care in making these determinations. One reason is the court's insistence on an individualized or case-by-case approach to assessing coverage under the ADA. Another is that individuals who employ mitigating measures may still be substantially limited in the major life activity of working. Finally, the Supreme Court did not suggest that any conditions as mitigated are per se excluded from coverage under the ADA.

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