Supreme Court Decisions Require ADA Revision

By Hall, James E.; Hatch, D. Diane | Workforce, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Decisions Require ADA Revision


Hall, James E., Hatch, D. Diane, Workforce


Recent Supreme Court decisions eliminate confusion regarding accommodations, government safety standards and potential conflict between the ADA and the Social Security Act.

The recent Supreme Court decisions regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were received with mixed emotions. For disabled workers, the rulings were considered a disappointing setback. For employers, the news brought relief.

The ADA, which was established in 1990, prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of physical or mental disabilities. Prohibited are discriminatory acts against individuals who: 1) are disabled, 2) have a record of being disabled, or 3) are regarded by an employer as being disabled. Disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

But what counts as a substantial limitation to a major life activity is often unclear, and is an issue that's caused a sizable amount of grief for employers. Ever since the ADA was enacted, employees and employers have debated what's considered a disability, how it's determined and what employers should do to accommodate it.

The Supreme Court decisions have helped shed light on some of this confusion by providing clearer rules as to who is entitled to such protections, i.e., who is disabled. In two of the recent case decisions, the Court held that mitigating measures that alleviate the effects of disabilities must be considered when determining if an employee is disabled under the ADA. In another case, it was determined that employers are permitted to apply federal safety standards requiring employees to meet visual-acuity standards for certain job activities, such as driving. And in the final case, the Court clarified that employees who apply for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits are not automatically precluded from filing ADA claims.

The decisions enforce the need for HR professionals to accurately identify individuals with disabilities, and evaluate the nature and extent of each employee's and applicant's impairment.

Details of the individual cases are as follows:

CASE I: Sutton vs. United Air Lines Inc. (No. 97-1943)

Decision Date: June 22, 1999

Key Questions: Is the existence of a disability to be determined with or without reference to corrective measures? Does the inability to perform one job substantially limit an employee's major life activity of working?

Facts of the Case: Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton, twin sisters with severe myopia, whose uncorrected visual acuity is 20/200 in one eye and 20/400 in the other, applied for commercial-airline pilot positions with United Air Lines. By using corrective glasses or contact lenses, both sisters have 20/20 vision and function normally.

During their job interviews, the two women were advised that United required uncorrected visual acuity of 20/100 or better of all its pilots, and neither was offered a position.

The twins sued under the ADA, alleging they had been denied positions based on their disabilities, or because United regarded them as disabled.

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling:

Majority vote (7-2)

The determination of whether an individual is disabled, or substantially limited in a major life activity, should consider measures that mitigate the individual's impairment. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC's) guidelines, which provide that mitigating measures should not be considered, are "an impermissible interpretation of the ADA." A person isn't disabled if his or her impairment is corrected and does not substantially limit a major life activity.

United's visual acuity requirement did not support a claim that the twins were regarded as disabled because other jobs exist for which they are qualified.

CASE II: Murphy vs.

United Parcel Service Inc.

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