Supreme Court Restricts ADA Definition Of "Disability"

Profession:Davis Wright Tremaine

By Phil Clements, Tahl Tyson, Anne Denecke and Liz Staggs-Wilson


In June 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court drastically restricted the types of employees who are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). In three separate cases the Court ruled that the ADA does not apply to people with most correctable conditions, such as poor eyesight that can be improved with glasses, or high blood pressure that can be controlled with medication. The Court rejected EEOC guidelines that "disability" should be determined without regard to such mitigating measures. In a ruling viewed as a win for employers, not only did the Court clarify and limit which employees may claim ADA protection, the Court also affirmed the right of employers to rely on safety and other regulations to define job qualifications. These rulings will have immediate impact in states without state anti-discrimination laws. States with laws patterned after the ADA, such as Oregon, will likely follow the lead of the Supreme Court in narrowly construing the definition of disability. Employers in states whose laws do not track the federal model, such as Washington and California, will need to maintain compliance with their state law.

What Is A "Disability"?

The cases turn on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the term "disability" under the ADA. The ADA defines "disability" as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more . . . major life activities," or as " being regarded as having such an impairment."

The EEOC has issued regulations that define "physical impairment" as "any physiological disorder . . . affecting . . . special sense organs." The agency has defined the term "substantially limits" as "unable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform," and "major life activities" to mean functions such as walking, seeing, and even working. EEOC guidelines interpreting these regulations provide that the determination whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity must be made without regard to whether assistive devices or medication mitigate the limitation - an interpretation that was contested before the Supreme Court.

Sutton And Hinton v. United Airlines Inc.

Twin pilots Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton are substantially nearsighted but have 20/20 vision when wearing corrective lenses. United Airlines denied them jobs as global airline pilots under a company policy requiring uncorrected vision of 20/100 or better.

The Supreme Court held that the pilots were not "disabled" under the ADA. The Court reasoned that if a disability exists only where an impairment "substantially limits" a major life...

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