We write to alert you to a new federal amendment that significantly impacts the protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (hereinafter the “ADA”) by overturning the holdings of several United States Supreme Court decisions.

In passing the ADA, Congress intended to provide broad and generous protection to qualified individuals with disabilities with regard to certain terms, conditions and privileges of employment. However, recent Supreme Court decisions narrowed the definition of disability, leaving many disabled persons without statutory protection. Now, as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (hereinafter the “ADA Amendments Act”), signed into law by President George W. Bush on September 26, 2008, and effective January 1, 2009, Congress has redefined the term “disability,” giving more protection to qualified employees. This Alert provides a brief overview of these important amendments.

Congress Intends to Provide Broad Protections to Disabled Individuals

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“The Rehabilitation Act”) is a federal law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability. The nondiscrimination requirements of the law apply to employers and organizations that receive financial assistance from any Federal department or agency. The Rehabilitation Act forbids organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services. It defines the rights of individuals with disabilities to participate in, and have access to, program benefits and services. The standards for determining employment discrimination under The Rehabilitation Act are the same as those used in Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is explained in more detail below.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

The ADA is a federal law that prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.

An individual with a disability is a person who: (a) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (b) has a record of such an impairment; or (c) is regarded as having such an impairment. Additionally, a qualified employee or applicant with a disability is an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. An employer is further required to make an accommodation to the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee if it would not impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business, which is defined in detail under the statute.

The Supreme Court Narrows Protections Afforded to Disabled Individuals

The Sutton and Toyota Supreme Court Decisions

In Sutton v. United Airlines Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999), plaintiffs, severely myopic twins, applied to be commercial airline pilots for United Airlines, Inc. (“United”). They were eventually rejected for employment because they did not meet United's minimum vision requirement, which was uncorrected visual acuity of 20/100 or better. Plaintiffs filed a claim for disability discrimination under the ADA with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The district court dismissed plaintiffs’ complaint for failure to state a claim because they could fully correct their visual impairments with corrective lenses or glasses. Thus, the court held plaintiffs were not actually substantially limited in any major life activity as required under the ADA. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision employing similar logic. Consequently, the Supreme Court adopted the “mitigating measures” standard and held that in determining whether an employee’s impairment substantially limited a major life activity, the improvement or positive effect of any mitigating measures (here, glasses) had to be considered.

In Toyota Mfg. Ky. Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), plaintiff, an assembly line employee suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome and related impairments, sued her former employer for failing to provide her with a reasonable accommodation as required by the ADA. The district court held that plaintiff’s impairment did not qualify as a disability because it did not substantially limit any major life activity. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that her impairments substantially limited her ability to perform the range of manual tasks associated with an assembly line job. The Supreme Court held that the Sixth Circuit did not apply the proper standard in determining that plaintiff was disabled under the ADA because it did not analyze whether plaintiff’s impairments prevented or restricted her from performing tasks that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives. Indeed, the Supreme Court held that the impairments’ impact must be permanent or long term. The Supreme Court further held that the ADA was to be interpreted “strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled.”

Protections for Disabled Individuals Restored

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008

The purpose of the ADA Amendments Act is to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities” and to restore broad coverage to disabled persons. The amendments enhance the protections of qualified employees and restore the ADA’s original purpose. Significantly, the amendments, among other things:

  • Overrule Sutton v. United Airlines Inc. (and its companion cases). Protections of the ADA will apply to all persons, without regard to mitigating circumstances, such as taking medication or using eyeglasses/contact lenses. Whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is to be determined without reference to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures;
  • Overrule Toyota Mfg. Ky. Inc. v. Williams. While the “substantially limited” language remains part of the definition of “disability,” a much less demanding standard applies. Courts are now directed toward a more generous meaning and application of the “substantially limited” standard;
  • Reinstate holding in School Board of Nassau County v. Airline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987). Broadening the interpretation of “regarded as” under The Rehabilitation Act by, among other things, defining “handicap” to include “contagious diseases that substantially limit one or more major life activities”; and
  • Reject Existing EEOC Regulations. Advises the EEOC to rewrite its current regulations, which states that under the ADA “substantially limited” means “significantly restricted,” in a less stringent manner.

Most notably, the definition of disability is broadened, increasing the number of people covered under the ADA. For example, under Sutton, people with diabetes, cancer and epilepsy were routinely denied ADA claims because of the “mitigating measures” used to manage their conditions. Now, as Congress claims it originally intended, these qualified individuals will be afforded necessary statutory protection. Similarly, employees with impairments that are episodic or in remission may also, under certain circumstances, qualify as “disabled.” Therefore, employers must be cognizant and fully informed as to what qualifies as disabled under these amendments. In addition, certain employment handbooks and training materials may also require important revisions.

Finally, we note that the ADA Amendments Act restricts how courts will interpret if an impairment substantially limits a major life activity in order to be a disability. This amendment will appreciably change how disability discrimination cases will be litigated going forward. Accordingly, as of January 1, 2009, employers should verify that any current or potential disability claims are handled in compliance with the ADA Amendments Act. We expect further guidance from the EEOC on whether these amendments can be applied retroactively and will subsequently provide a supplemental alert.