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High Court Limits Who Is Disabled

Ruling: Justices put federal anti-bias law further out of reach for injured workers.

January 09, 2002|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court made it harder Tuesday for millions of workers with painful wrist injuries, bad backs or similar impairments to qualify for protection as disabled people under the federal anti-discrimination law.

As long as they can brush their teeth and wash their faces in the morning, these employees are probably not disabled, the high court said unanimously, even if they suffer pain when typing on a computer or lifting a box at work.

A disabled person is someone who struggles to do basic tasks that are "central to daily life," not the special tasks that go with a particular job, said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Moreover, she said, a disabled employee must have an impairment that is "permanent or long term," not an injury that is likely to heal. Injured workers should seek benefits under state workers' compensation laws, the court said, rather than claiming to be disabled under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

Business lawyers hailed the outcome and predicted it will shield employers from being sued or forced to make special arrangements for the growing number of employees with carpal tunnel syndrome or other repetitive stress injuries.

"Today's ruling makes it clear that the ADA is still the Americans With Disabilities Act, not the Americans With Injuries Act," said Patrick Cleary, senior vice president for the National Assn. of Manufacturers.

The ruling may have little effect in California, however, where a worker-friendly state law mandates that employers must accommodate people with work-related injuries, employment lawyers said.

Tuesday's 9-0 ruling is only the latest court decision to limit the reach of the landmark federal law.

Three years ago, the justices ruled that people with correctable conditions such as bad eyesight, or treatable diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes or epilepsy, are not protected from job bias. The court reasoned that these people are not truly disabled because they were able to work.

The case decided Tuesday concerned an assembly line worker who could no longer do her job because its repetitive motions caused intense pain in her wrists and shoulders. Her condition, carpal tunnel syndrome, is a common workplace injury.

The case also drew wide interest because it asked a basic question: Who is a disabled person?

Ella Williams had worked with power tools at the Toyota Motors plant in Georgetown, Ky. When her pain became crippling, she sought medical treatment and obtained some benefits from Kentucky's workers' compensation system. Typically, a workers' compensation law covers medical expenses and some payment for lost work due to a work-related injury.

Williams chose to return to full-time work but asked to be assigned to lighter duties, such as inspecting cars. Her doctor said she should lift no more than 20 pounds. When her supervisors refused to accommodate her request, she quit and sued the company under the ADA.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sided with Williams and said her injury was akin to having "damaged or deformed limbs." Because she was unable to perform "a class of manual tasks at work," Williams had a disability and her employer should have made a "reasonable accommodation" for her, the appeals court said.

Disagreeing, O'Connor faulted the lower court for focusing its attention on the workplace.

To be disabled, a person "must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people's daily lives," she said. This includes "such basic abilities as walking, seeing and hearing."

Beyond that, "household chores, bathing and brushing one's teeth are among the types of manual tasks of central importance to people's daily life," she continued. Despite the fact that Williams could not handle power tools, "she could still brush her teeth, wash her face, bathe, tend her flower garden, fix breakfast, do laundry and pick up around the house," she wrote in her opinion for the court.

Because Williams was capable of performing these daily tasks, she was not a truly disabled person, O'Connor concluded in Toyota vs. Williams, 00-1089.

The Labor Department has estimated that more than 1 million U.S. employees suffer repetitive stress injuries. They range from computer users to baggage handlers and assembly line workers. Legal experts say an even greater number of workers have back ailments.

Another category of workers who are likely to be affected by Tuesday's ruling are those who claim on-the-job stress.

"Employers have been very skeptical of claims of a disability that manifests itself when someone comes to work and miraculously disappears when they punch out and go home," said Christopher Collins, a management lawyer in New York. "I think the Supreme Court has recognized and said you can't just look at work to decide if someone is disabled."

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