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Section Review

The United States Supreme Court Chips Away at the ADA

Samuel BerkSamuel Berk practices law in Cambridge, concentrating in disability benefits and disability rights. He is a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association Access to Justice Section Council.

In four separate Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) cases decided in the 2002 term, the United States Supreme Court has issued rulings that either limit the scope of the protections afforded by the ADA or the remedies available under the ADA.

At the beginning of 2002, the Supreme Court decided Toyota Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 122 S.Ct. 681 (2002). This case concerned, among other claims, a claim by an employee that she was not provided a reasonable accommodation for her disability, carpal tunnel syndrome. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had determined that her impairments were substantially limiting in the major life activity of performing manual tasks (and on that basis granted a partial summary judgment to her on the question of whether she was disabled under the standards set forth in the ADA). However, the Supreme Court was unanimous in holding that the Court of Appeals did not apply the correct standard. The Supreme Court concluded that the Court of Appeals analyzed only a limited number of manual tasks in making its determination when it should have considered whether the employee's impairments kept her from performing tasks that are of central importance to activities in daily life. The case was remanded for further consideration under this more comprehensive standard.

Subsequently, in April 2002, the Supreme Court decided a case that concerned the question of whether the requirement to make reasonable accommodation under the ADA took precedence over a set of rules for a seniority system at the workplace. In this case, US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 122 S.Ct. 1516 (2002), a baggage handler for the airline injured his back and, using seniority rights, transferred to a mailroom position. After he worked there for a couple of years, two more senior employees sought the mailroom position. He then requested that he be allowed to keep the position as a reasonable accommodation for his disability. The airline refused this request and he was terminated from his job.

The Supreme Court was clear in its majority opinion (although four of the justices filed two separate dissenting opinions), that the existence of a seniority system would generally be sufficient for an employer to obtain summary judgment in circumstances such as these. The court rejected the approach taken by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. This Court of Appeals had held that the existence of a seniority system was merely a factor to consider in the analysis. The Supreme Court concluded that when a requested accommodation is in conflict with the rules of a seniority system it would ordinarily establish that the accommodation is not reasonable, and therefore entitle the employer to summary judgment. Although, the Supreme Court did allow that the plaintiff can still try to establish special or unique circumstances that would make an exception to the seniority system reasonable in a particular case.

In June 2002, the Supreme Court decided a case that concerned the validity of a regulation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In this case, Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Echazabal, 122 S.Ct. 2045 (2002), an individual applied for a job at a refinery, but because he had Hepatitis C the employer withdrew its conditional offer of employment, saying that his condition would be aggravated by exposure to toxins at the refinery. The individual filed suit claiming an ADA violation, and the employer defended by reference to an EEOC regulation, which provides that an employer can refuse to hire an individual applicant if performing the job would endanger the individual's own health, due to a disability.

The issue in the case before the Supreme Court was whether the ADA permits this particular implementing regulation. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that since the ADA itself only referred to threats of harm to other individuals in its discussion of the direct-threat defense to claims of discrimination, the EEOC regulation went beyond the scope of a permissible regulation and it conflicted with a congressional policy against paternalism in the workplace. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, rejected the position and reasoning of the Ninth Circuit under the interpretive canon expressio unius exclusio alterius (the expression of one item of an associated group or series excludes another item that is left unmentioned). The Supreme Court determined that this canon was not applicable to the facts of this case and that the regulation at issue was reasonable. The court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit, which had been to reverse the granting of summary judgment to the employer at the district court level.

Also in June 2002, the Supreme Court decided Barnes, etc., et al. v. Gorman, 122 S.Ct. 2097 (2002). In this case a paraplegic individual who used a wheelchair for mobility was arrested after fighting with a bouncer at a nightclub in Kansas City, Mo. The police mistreated him. They refused to allow him to empty his urine bag, which he had to use due to his lack of control over his bladder. Further, they did not use a wheelchair accessible van for the arrest. So, he ended up being strapped into a seat and eventually fell to the floor, rupturing his urine bag and injuring his shoulder and back. As a consequence, he later suffered more serious medical problems, including a bladder infection, serious lower back pain and uncontrollable spasms in his paralyzed areas.

He brought suit under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and a jury awarded him $1 million in compensatory damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages. The district court vacated the award of punitive damages, holding that they were not an available form of damages, but the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed that determination, finding that it was within the power of the federal courts to award appropriate relief under a federal statute. The Supreme Court concluded that, because there is no right to punitive damages in private suits brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there is no right to punitive damages under either Section 202 of the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Supreme Court noted that under the statutory language for both the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 202 of the ADA the remedies available should be the same as those available under Title VI. The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed.

In consideration of the foregoing United States Supreme Court decisions in 2002, it seems that, while the ADA remains a substantial civil rights enactment for individuals with disabilities, there is a definitive trend toward diminishing its scope.

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