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Justices Debate Applying Disability Law to Job Injury

November 08, 2001|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Lawyers for Toyota Motors Corp. urged the Supreme Court on Wednesday to limit the nation's anti-bias laws to the "truly disabled," not the millions of American workers whose injuries or impairments prevent them from doing certain jobs.

The auto maker is battling Ella Williams, a former assembly line worker who developed crippling tendon pain in her wrists and shoulders.

The case has drawn wide attention because it poses a basic question: Who is entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990?

Corporate America has joined the Toyota case to argue that only severely disabled people should be covered. The law says that employers must make "reasonable accommodations" for a "qualified individual with a disability."

Business lawyers said the law should not be expanded to require employers to give "affirmative" benefits to marginal workers.

However, disability rights advocates said Congress intended to extend generous legal protections to the tens of millions of Americans who can perform some jobs, despite a physical or mental impairment.

No one questions that Williams, 42, is impaired.

After working on Toyota's assembly line at Georgetown, Ky., she developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrists and tendinitis in her shoulders. She was unable to grip power tools or even sponge down new cars because of the repetitive motion.

She asked to work instead as an inspector on the assembly line, but the company refused. She sued, and while a federal district judge dismissed her claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sided with Williams, holding that her inability to perform manual tasks on the assembly line constituted a disability under the law.

But Toyota appealed to the high court, arguing that because Williams can do many things, she cannot claim to be a worker with a disability.

"She can brush her teeth, wash, bathe, do laundry and cook breakfast," Toyota attorney John G. Roberts said of Williams. "She can take care of personal chores around the house. [Her wrist injury] is only a problem at work," he said.

Roberts, a former clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, has been nominated by President Bush to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

Earlier this year, the Bush administration filed a brief siding with Toyota in the case. It argued that a worker needed more than an "inability to perform work-related manual tasks" to claim she had a disability.

The court's conservative justices have cast a skeptical eye on the ADA in the past, and several of them took up Toyota's argument.

"This wasn't intended to replace workers' comp," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, referring to the benefits provided to workers who are injured on the job.

The new law was supposed to focus on the "wheelchair bound," she said, not "carpal tunnel syndrome or bad backs!"

Justice Antonin Scalia agreed, referring scornfully to this "sore wrist case." Congress was thinking of "a limited class of people: the handicapped," he said. It was not concerned "with everyone who lost a thumb," he added.

Two years ago, the court narrowed disability-discrimination law by saying it did not cover workers with treatable conditions or impairments. These can range from poor eyesight to such diseases as epilepsy or diabetes. The court's ruling in those cases affected millions of employees.

But earlier this year, the court confounded expectations by ruling for one disabled person in a highly publicized case. The justices said that disabled pro golfer Casey Martin was entitled to the law's protection and must be allowed to ride in a golf cart during tournaments.

During Wednesday's argument, however, most of the justices had returned to their previous view that the law should be read narrowly.

Scalia, like O'Connor, expressed amazement that a "relatively minor" impairment such as tendinitis might qualify as a disability.

A ruling in the case, Toyota Motors vs. Williams, 00-1089, can be expected early next year.

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