High court takes on disabilities law

Cases could clarify uncertainties of act

April 17, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear two cases that could clear up lingering confusion about how much protection Congress intended to give disabled workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In one case, the court will consider whether an assembly-line worker with carpal tunnel syndrome is disabled and thus entitled to a less physically demanding job. In the other case, the court will decide whether a disabled employee who has requested a transfer to accommodate his disability should prevail over more senior employees who want the same job.

Both cases give the court a chance to resolve uncertainties about the scope of the disabilities law, which requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" to allow workers with physical or mental impairments to perform their jobs. Though the law has greatly expanded the rights of the disabled since its passage in 1990, its broad language has spawned conflicting interpretations about how far its protections extend.

"There are a lot of issues the lower courts are confused about under the ADA," said Michael H. Gottesman, a law professor at Georgetown University. "I expect you're going to be seeing a lot of these cases for some years to come."

The first case accepted by the court yesterday involves a lawsuit filed by Ella Williams, a former employee of the Toyota Motors Plant in Georgetown, Ky. Williams had been hired in 1990 to work in the paint department but soon developed carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis that prevented her from doing her job.

Williams was transferred to a job inspecting cars on an assembly line, which alleviated her problem. But in 1996, the company expanded her responsibilities to include wiping down the cars with a gloss as they passed. The new duties aggravated Williams' old injuries and caused further pain in her neck and shoulders.

When Williams asked for a reassignment, the company refused. She then sued, contending that the company had failed to accommodate her disability.

The district court dismissed her claim, ruling that Williams was not disabled because, while she could not perform certain tasks, she was still able to hold many jobs at the plant.

But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed that ruling. It concluded that Williams was significantly limited in her ability to perform manual tasks and that she was therefore disabled under the 1990 law.

The second case involves a lawsuit filed by Robert Barnett, a former employee of US Airways in San Francisco.

Barnett initially worked as a customer service agent, checking in passengers and loading luggage. But after he hurt his back in 1990, he was transferred temporarily to a less physically taxing job in the mailroom.

Two years later, the airline allowed all employees to bid for positions in the mailroom on the basis of seniority. When Barnett learned that more-senior employees had applied for his job, he requested that the company assign him to the mailroom permanently to accommodate his disability. The company refused, and Barnett sued under the disabilities law.

A district judge dismissed the suit, ruling that the law does not require a company to disregard its seniority system to meet the needs of disabled workers. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed that ruling. It concluded that an employer must give disabled workers priority over more senior employees unless to do so would create "an undue hardship" for the company.

The 9th Circuit made clear that its ruling did not cover cases in which a company's seniority policy is mandated by a labor agreement. In such cases, the 9th Circuit and other courts have concluded, an employer need not violate a union contract to comply with the disabilities law.

Several appellate courts have ruled that companies never have to breach their seniority policies - whether or not a labor agreement is involved. But the 9th Circuit said that in the absence of a union contract, a company must try to bend its seniority system to meet the needs of disabled employees.

In its brief to the Supreme Court, US Airways argues that the 9th Circuit's decision "converts a statute that bars discrimination against disabled employees into one that requires discrimination against non-disabled employees." That result, it says, "is inconsistent with the nondiscriminatory aims of the ADA."

Both cases will be heard in the fall.

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