Definition of 'Disability' Narrowed
Hiring of Individuals Who Pose Threat to Self

Employer's Seniority System Takes Precedence

In 2002 the Supreme Court issued three significant opinions interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act. These decisions appear to limit the application of the act and have generally been viewed as positive holdings for employers.

Definition of 'Disability' Narrowed

In Toyota Motor Mfg, Kentucky v Williams(1) the Supreme Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act covers only those impairments that adversely affect activities that are central to daily life; an impairment that merely impedes one's ability to perform a specific job is not sufficient to trigger coverage. Ella Williams, who claimed she could not perform her automobile assembly line job due to carpal tunnel syndrome and bilateral tendinitis, sued her former employer for allegedly failing to provide her with a reasonable accommodation as required by the act. The district court held that Williams's impairment did not qualify as a 'disability' under the act because it had not "substantially limited" any "major life activity", and found no evidence that Williams had a record of substantially limiting impairment or that her employer regarded her as having such an impairment.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that Williams was disabled because she could demonstrate that her disability involved a "class" of manual activities that affected her ability to perform tasks at work. In reaching this conclusion the court disregarded evidence that Williams could tend to her personal hygiene and carry out personal or household chores. The court reasoned that such evidence did not affect its determination that Williams was substantially limited in her ability to perform the range of manual tasks associated with her assembly line job. The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the Sixth Circuit applied the proper standard for determining whether Williams was disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In its analysis, the High Court considered the elements an individual must prove to demonstrate that he or she is a "qualified individual with a disability", as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the act, a claimant must show that:

  • he or she has a physical or mental impairment;

  • the impairment limits a major life activity; and
  • the limitation on the major life activity is substantial.

The court found that to be substantially limited in the major life activity of performing manual tasks, the individual must be restricted from doing activities that are central to daily life. In other words, the inquiry should be whether the claimant is unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people's daily lives, and not (as the Sixth Circuit held) whether the claimant is unable to perform tasks at work. The court found that repetitive work with hands and arms extended at or above shoulder level for extended periods of time is not an important part of most people's daily lives. Moreover, the court found that by disregarding evidence that Williams could tend to her personal hygiene and carry out personal or household chores, the Sixth Circuit disregarded the very type of evidence on which it should have been focusing. These tasks, the court held, are of central importance to people's daily lives and should have been part of the assessment in determining whether Williams was disabled.

Based on the court's decision, it is likely that fewer plaintiffs will be able to sustain their burden of demonstrating that they are 'disabled' under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hiring of Individuals Who Pose Threat to Self

In Chevron v Echazabal(2) the Supreme Court unanimously upheld an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulation that allows an employer to refuse to hire disabled individuals whose performance on the job would present a "direct threat" to that individual's own health.

Beginning in 1972, Mario Echazabal was employed by an independent contractor at an oil refinery owned by Chevron. Echazabal twice applied for a job directly with Chevron. On both occasions, Chevron offered Echazabal a job subject to his submission to the company's physical examination. The exam revealed liver abnormality or damage (which was later diagnosed as hepatitis). Citing the risk of damage to Echazabal's liver by continued exposure to toxins at Chevron's refinery, the company withdrew its offer of employment. Echazabal filed a lawsuit against Chevron claiming disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from using "qualifications standards...that screen out or tend to screen out an individual with a disability". However, the act also creates an affirmative defence for action under a qualification standard "shown to be job-related for the position in question and...consistent with business necessity". Moreover, the law states that such a standard may include "a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace". The EEOC regulation carries the defence one step further, stating that employers may screen out a potential worker with a disability not only for risks that he would pose to others in the workplace, but for risks to his own health or safety as well. The Ninth Circuit rejected the EEOC's interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and reversed the district court's decision dismissing Echazabal's suit. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a disagreement among the circuits regarding this issue.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit's ruling. The court rejected Echazabal's argument that the specific availability of the direct threat defence when a disabled worker poses a risk to a third party precludes a finding that the defence may also be asserted when a disabled worker poses a risk to himself. In upholding the regulation, the court explained that

"[t]he EEOC was certainly acting within the reasonable zone when it saw a difference between rejecting workplace paternalism and ignoring specific and documented risks to the employee himself, even if the employee would take his chances for the sake of getting a job."(3)

The court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit to determine whether Chevron's decision not to hire Echazabal was based on "reasonable medical judgment". Thus, the Chevron court reaffirmed that the direct threat defence must be

"based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available objective evidence, and upon an 'individualized assessment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job'."(4)

An employer therefore is not automatically relieved of liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act if it takes action against a disabled worker in good faith based on the advice of a company doctor. Rather, employers must act with caution to ensure that the employment decision is the product of "reasonable medical judgment".

Employer's Seniority System Takes Precedence

In US Airways Inc v Barnett(5) the Supreme Court held that an employer generally will not be required to violate a seniority system in order to accommodate a disabled worker. However, the court also found that an employee may be allowed to present evidence of "special circumstances" demonstrating that the requested accommodation or assignment was reasonable.

Robert Barnett injured his back while working at US Airways in a cargo-handling position. When he returned to work, he was unable to perform the physical requirements of that job and was transferred to a less physically demanding mailroom position. Barnett worked in the mailroom for two years, until his position became open to seniority-based employee bidding. At that time, Barnett learned that two co-workers with greater seniority were planning to transfer to the mailroom and that, as a result, he would have to return to a cargo job. Barnett asked US Airways to accommodate his disability by making an exception and allowing him to remain in his job in the mailroom; US Airways denied his request. When Barnett lost his job, he filed a lawsuit claiming that the airline unlawfully refused to accommodate his disability.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers reasonably to accommodate a physically or mentally disabled employee who is otherwise qualified for the job, it does not require an employer to make accommodations which are unreasonable or which would impose an "undue hardship" on the operation of the employer's business. In Barnett's lawsuit, the district court granted summary judgment in favour of US Airways, finding that altering a seniority system would result in an undue hardship to both US Airways and its able-bodied employees. However, the Ninth Circuit reversed that ruling, holding that the presence of a seniority system is merely a factor in deciding whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider whether a proposed accommodation that is otherwise reasonable is rendered unreasonable because the assignment would violate a seniority system's rules.

In a five to four decision the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, holding that a seniority system such as that at US Airways "will prevail in the run of cases".(6) In other words, there is a presumption that an accommodation which conflicts with the rules of a seniority system will ordinarily be considered unreasonable and the employer will be entitled to summary judgment. The court noted the importance of seniority to employee-management relations in creating and fulfilling employee expectations of fair, uniform treatment in terms of job security, and the opportunity for steady and predictable advancement based on objective standards.

However, the court held that an employee may rebut this presumption by presenting special circumstances warranting a finding that, despite the presence of a seniority system, the requested accommodation is "reasonable" on the particular facts. Thus, the court explained in an example, a plaintiff might show that the seniority system already contains a number of exceptions, or that the employer frequently exercises the right to change the seniority system unilaterally such that an additional departure from the system would not impose an undue burden.

The Barnett decision is a positive development for employers that have a seniority system in place, as it rejects the position taken by some courts that the burden is on the employer to show that an undue hardship exists and puts the onus on the employee to show that violating a seniority system is "reasonable". However, employers are warned that if they have a seniority system in place which gives the employer the authority unilaterally to change the system at any time, a court may determine that departing from the seniority system to accommodate a disabled worker would be "reasonable" under the circumstances.

For further information on this topic please contact Kevin B Leblang or Robert N Holtzman at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP by telephone (+1 212 715 9100) or by fax (+1 212 715 8000) or by email ([email protected] or [email protected]).


(1) 122 S Ct 681 (2002).

(2) 122 S Ct 2045 (2002).

(3) Id at 2053.

(4) Id (citations omitted).

(5) 122 S Ct 1516 (2002).

(6) Id at 1519.