July 1999

Workplace Labor Update - ADA's Breadth Narrowed – July 1999

4 min

On June 22, 1999, the United States Supreme Court issued several opinions that narrowed the breadth of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and that may reduce the torrent of litigation under that statute. In its most pivotal holding, the Court ruled that the determination of whether an individual is disabled should be made with reference to medical or otherwise corrective measures that mitigate the effect of that individual's impairment. This holding resolved a split between several of the federal courts of appeal and expressly rejected agency guidance to the contrary.

The lead decision of the Court was Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc. in which the Court rejected the claims of twin sisters, who were denied employment as commercial airline pilots with the defendant employer. Both sisters suffered extreme myopia, with uncorrected visual acuity of 20/200 or worse in the right eye and 20/400 or worse in the left eye. However, the plaintiffs' vision with the use of corrective lenses was 20/20 or better. Notwithstanding this fact, United Airlines denied employment on the basis that the sisters did not meet the company's minimum vision requirement of uncorrected visual acuity of 20/100 or better.

In light of the company's proffered reason for rejecting them, the sisters filed an administrative charge of disability discrimination, and thereafter filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. The district court dismissed the complaint because the plaintiffs could fully correct their visual impairments; thus, the court reasoned that they were not actually substantially limited in any major life activity. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision and held that mitigating measures should be considered in examining whether an individual suffers a cognizable disability. The Tenth Circuit's holding was contrary to that of the First, Second, Third, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits, each of which had held that mitigating measures cannot be considered when analyzing an ADA claim.

In affirming the decision of the Tenth Circuit, the Supreme Court expressly rejected agency guidelines issued by the EEOC, directing that an individual's impairment must be analyzed without regard to mitigating measures. The Court reasoned that, because the phrase “substantially limits” appears in the present verb tense, the phrase must be read to require that a person be presently—not potentially or hypothetically—substantially limited in order to demonstrate a disability. The Court also found that the agency guidelines contradicted the individualized inquiry mandated by the ADA, insofar as they often required courts and employers to speculate about a person's condition and force them to make a disability determination based on general information about how an uncorrected impairment usually affects individuals.

The Court used the specific example of diabetes to make its point, noting that under the agency view all diabetics would be disabled because, if they fail to monitor their blood sugar levels and administer insulin, they would almost certainly be substantially limited in one or more major life activities. Thus, a diabetic whose illness does not impair his or her daily activities by virtue of their medication, still would be considered disabled simply because he or she has diabetes. The Court specifically rejected this “class-type” analysis of disability.

The Court reinforced the need for an individualized inquiry into the actual effect of an individual's impairment in Albertsons, Inc. v. Kirkinburg. In Albertsons, the Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and found that an individual with monocular vision could not be considered per se disabled, because the plaintiff may have been able to compensate for this lack of binocular vision through unconscious mental compensation. The Court found no basis for distinguishing between measures undertaken with artificial aids, like medications and glasses, and measures undertaken, whether consciously or unconsciously, with the body's own systems.

In Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the Supreme Court applied the reasoning of Sutton to affirm the dismissal of a claim of an individual with hypertension. The plaintiff was fired from his position with UPS because he could not obtain a health certification from the Department of Transportation to perform the required function of driving a commercial vehicle. Because the plaintiff's impairment did not substantially limit him in his medicated state, the Court found that he did not suffer a cognizable disability.

These decisions of the Supreme Court make clear that an individual's impairment must be examined in its medicated or otherwise corrected state, and that “assumptions” of disability will not be sanctioned. While it is unlikely that these decisions will halt the flow of ADA litigation, they do clarify and narrow the reach of the statute and potentially provide employers with strong arguments in defense.