Court limits right to sue by disabled

Corrected conditions are not covered under anti-bias act

`Pro-employer' rulings

The disabled win only one of four major opinions

June 23, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Dealing a sharp setback to disability rights advocates, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that an individual who has a disabling condition that has been corrected -- a nearsighted person who wears glasses, for example -- is not disabled under a federal anti-discrimination law.

The much awaited ruling, coming on a 7-2 vote in three separate cases, was a major victory for business and appears to cut down by more than 100 million the number of people protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Those whose impairments are largely corrected by medication or other devices are not `disabled' within the meaning of the ADA," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the lead opinion on the issue.

The court rejected the view of most lower courts and three federal agencies that an impaired person was disabled, even if the condition had been relieved or eased by medicines, devices or physical adaptation.

Georgetown University law professor Chai Feldblum, who helped draft the ADA law nine years ago, said the ruling flies "in the face of Congress' intent in passing the ADA -- to provide civil rights protection to any person with a physical impairment who was discriminated against because of the impairment."

She said the ruling created "the absurd result of a person being disabled enough to be fired from a job, but not disabled enough to challenge the firing."

But Stephen A. Bokat, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's legal arm, the National Chamber Litigation Center, said the decisions apply "a common-sense standard to the workplace. Employers should not have to relax necessary standards for employees who have very common and easily correctable ailments."

David Diamond, a New York City employment lawyer who mainly represents companies, called the rulings "pro-employer," saying they "relieve employers of all of the problems of changing thework environment or installing new equipment" to accommodate workers who claim to be disabled but cannot qualify for that status under the new decisions.

The ADA, passed nine years ago by Congress to combat bias against the handicapped, forbids discrimination in jobs and in public benefits when a person is treated unequally solely because of a disability. Employers must change their workplace operations to accommodate disabled persons who can do the work if those changes are made.

The court, rushing to finish its current term so that it can recess today, issued four major opinions yesterday on disability rights. The disabled won only one of the four -- and that one only with significant limits on the victory.

By a 6-3 vote, the court ruled that it is illegal discrimination under ADA to keep mentally disabled individuals in state hospitals if they can be treated in a home-like center in the community.

Keeping them institutionalized, and thus unable to mix regularly with nondisabled persons, is a form of illegal segregation based on their disability, the court majority declared in a decision that is likely to reduce even further the declining number of patients required to stay in mental hospitals.

At the same time, the court said that states are not required to move patients out of hospitals if that would over-tax their resources for treating all the mentally ill throughout the state. The court also stressed the importance of keeping some hospitals open because some patients can only be treated in such institutions.

The court seemed to be saying that, if states do not now have community-based treatment centers, they need not set them up to achieve desegregation of the mentally disabled.

In the other three disability cases yesterday, the court was laying down for the first time a legal definition of who is "disabled" under federal law.

It said that question has to be answered for each individual, and must be judged in the present -- that is, judged on whether the person right now has a condition that significantly limits his ability to do a major activity. If the condition has been corrected, the court majority said, a person may technically still have a disability but he or she is not currently impaired -- and thus is outside the federal law's scope.

In the three cases, the court ruled against twin sisters who are nearsighted and wanted to be commercial airline pilots, as their vision is corrected to 20-20 with glasses or contact lenses; a truck driver-mechanic who has high blood pressure but keeps it under control with medication; and a truck driver who has vision in only one eye but whose brain has compensated over time for that condition.

Each claimed that he or she was denied a job or fired because of the disability -- as judged before correction or medical relief.

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