The Adaaa: Congress Breathes New Life Into the Americans With Disabilities Act

Publication year2012
CitationVol. 81 No. 3 Pg. 22
The ADAAA: Congress Breathes New Life into the Americans with Disabilities Act
No. 81 J. Kan. Bar Assn 3, 22 (2012)
Kansas Bar Journal
March, 2012

Legal Article: The ADAAA: Congress Breathes New Life ...

by Scott Johnson.

I. Introduction

In 1990, two-thirds of disabled Americans were not working, despite being otherwise qualified for jobs.[1] In response, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).[2] The ADA created a cause of action against employers who take adverse action against disabled employees based on their disability.[3] To invoke the protections under the ADA, a plaintiff was required to have a "disability"[4] that "substantially limits"[5] a "major life activity."[6]

After passage, the ADA faced a hostile judicial reaction.[7]Many courts characterized it as an affirmative action program for the disabled, rather than as an antidiscrimination statute.[8] Even the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly referred to certain accommodations as "preferences for individuals with disabilities."[9] In a pair of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly construed the scope of the ADA's definition of who is disabled. First, the Supreme Court held that two nearsighted people were not disabled for the purposes of the ADA, because their eyeglasses successfully mitigated the disability.[10] Subsequently, the Court further narrowed the protected class of persons under the ADA. The Court held that for a person to qualify as disabled under the ADA, the disability must make it extremely difficult to impossible to perform tasks that are "of central importance to most people's daily lives."[11] Being able to work a particular job was not considered to be such a task.[12]

In response to these Supreme Court decisions, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).[13] The law became effective January 1, 2009. The statute overturns the Supreme Court's narrow interpretation of "substantially limiting a major life activity," and creates a broader class of persons who are considered "disabled" under the ADA.[14]Under the ADAAA, the definition of a qualified disability was substantially broadened, and plaintiffs are more easily able to maintain ADA claims. This article will examine the recent amendments, regulations, and case law, and demonstrates how they have changed the analysis under the new statute.

II. Sutton and Toyota

The ADA provides a cause of action for a person discriminated against on the basis of his disability. To establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that he: (1) is a disabled person as defined by the ADA; (2) is qualified, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform the essential functions of the job held or desired; and (3) suffered discrimination by an employer or prospective employer because of that disability.[15] Although the courts of appeal agreed for the most part on the second and third prongs of an ADA case, the circuits were split on the definition of "disabled person."[16] Most of the circuits, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), took the view that a plaintiff's disability should be examined without regard to any sort of mitigating measures they are taking to improve their condition.[17] The Tenth Circuit took the opposing view, holding that if a plaintiff could correct the impairment, then he or she was not substantially limited in any major life activity and therefore not disabled for the purposes of the ADA.[18] The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the circuit split in Sutton v. United Air Lines .[19]

In Sutton, twin sisters suffering from severe nearsightedness applied for positions as pilots for United Air Lines.[20] With corrective lenses, they "both function identically to individuals without a similar impairment.[21] Although they both met United Air Lines' "basic age, education, experience, and FAA certification qualifications," their job interviews were ended early due to their vision.[22] Neither was hired.[23]

The two filed suit under the ADA, alleging that United Air Lines discriminated against them on the basis of their disability, or because United Air Lines regarded the Sutton twins as having a disability.[24] The district court ruled that because they could "fully correct their visual impairments," they were not "substantially limited in a major life activity."[25]

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the decision, holding that the EEOC Interpretive Guidance, which calls for evaluating a disability without regard to mitigating measures, was in direct conflict with the plain language of the statute.[26] The court agreed with the Sutton twins that their vision was a physical impairment under the ADA."[27] The court next analyzed whether their myopia substantially limited a major life activity.[28] The twins argued that the court should defer to the EEOC's guidance, which states that the court should evaluate their impairment "without regard to mitigating measures[.]"[29]The Tenth Circuit agreed with United Air Lines.[30] It held that the EEOC's guidance regarding mitigating measures was not only in direct conflict with the ADA, but was generally inconsistent with other portions of the EEOC's own guidance.[31]The court held that to establish a prima facie case under the ADA, the twins must show that their vision in its corrected state substantially limits the major life activity of seeing.[32] Because the twins admitted that their corrected vision allowed them to "function identically to individuals without a similar impairment," their vision did not substantially limit a major life activity.[33] Thus, the twins were not disabled for the purposes of the ADA.[34]

The Supreme Court granted certiorari.[35] The Sutton twins argued that because the ADA did not directly address the question of mitigation, the Court should defer to the agency interpretation of the statute. The EEOC had previously stated that determination of whether an impairment substantially limited a major life activity "be made without regard to mitigating measures."[36] Additionally, they argued that their nearsightedness substantially limited them in the major life activity of working, because they were denied employment as global airline pilots, which they regarded as a "class of employment," due to their impairment.[37]

In response, United Air Lines argued that an impairment does not substantially limit a major life activity if it can be corrected.[38] United Air Lines pointed to the phrase "substantially limits one or more major life activities," to advance the contention that the substantial limitations "actually and presently exist."[39] United Air Lines noted that disregarding the mitigating measures that an individual takes conflicted with the ADA's command to examine an impairment of the major life activities "of such individual."[40] United Air Lines urged the Court to reject the EEOC's Interpretive Guidance, because it was in direct conflict with the statute.[41]

The Supreme Court agreed with United Air Lines' position. The Court first noted that the EEOC did not have the authority to interpret the term "disability."[42] The Court reasoned that the definition of disability requires that disabilities be evaluated "with respect to an individual." Thus, the Court held that the mitigating measures that an individual takes regarding an impairment must be taken into account to determine if an impairment substantially limits the major life activities of that individual.[43] The Court held that Congress never intended for the ADA to cover conditions that are controlled by medication or other measures.[44] Thus, if the mitigated condition did not substantially limit a major life activity, it was not a disability for the purposes of the ADA.[45]

The Court also addressed the Sutton twins' argument that United Air Lines regarded them as substantially limited in the major life activity of working. It held that the statutory phrase "substantially limits" requires, at a minimum, that the plaintiffs allege that they are unable to work in a broad class of jobs.[46] Although the twins were precluded from doing the work of a global airline pilot, there were a number of other available positions utilizing their skills, such as regional pilot and pilot instructor.[47] Given that the twins had similar job opportunities, the Court concluded that they were not substantially limited in the major life activity of working.[48]

The Court further narrowed the definition of "disability" in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams.[49] In Toyota, Ella Williams, an assembly line worker at a Toyota plant in Kentucky, developed carpal tunnel syndrome.[50] Her personal physician "placed her on permanent work restrictions that precluded her from lifting more than 20 pounds or from "˜frequently lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds,' engaging in "˜constant repetitive ... flexion or extension of [her] wrists or elbows,' performing "˜overhead work,' or using "˜vibratory or pneumatic tools.'"[51] The plant initially attempted to accommodate this restriction by assigning Williams to positions in the plant that required few manual tasks.[52] Three years later, the plant adopted a new policy which required employees in Williams' position to manually wipe down cars with highlight oil.[53] Soon after, Williams developed, among other conditions, "myotendinitis bilateral periscapular, an inflammation of the muscles and tendons around both of her shoulder blades."[54] The condition worsened and her physician placed her under a "no-work-of-any-kind" restriction.[55] The plant later fired her for failing to show up to work for nearly two months.[56]

Williams filed suit, alleging that the plant violated the ADA by failing to reasonably accommodate her disability.[57] The district court found that she was not disabled under the...

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