The first ten years of instruction from the Supreme Court on the ADA centered around employment issues, most of them regarding the definition of disability. This last five years, from 2001-2005, have included some holdings that still define disability, but has included an expansion to issues of state immunity regarding monetary damages in lawsuits filed by state employees. Also, there have been some forays into Titles II and III of the ADA with decisions instructing us on the Supreme Court’s views. While a couple of cases have been wins for plaintiffs, the majority have been disappointments for Plaintiffs eroding, from a Plaintiff’s point of view, the rights promised to disabled persons by the Congress’ passage of the ADA.
U of Alabama Board of trustees vs. Garrett, 2001
The Supreme Court struck the first big blow of the past five years in the Garrett case. Readers will remember that in this case there were two university employees who were terminated, they alleged discriminatorily, after they became disabled. Alabama argued that while Congress may have meant to authorize an exemption to state immunity of federal lawsuits with the ADA’s language, Congress didn’t have that authority. Thus, the court held that state employees may not sue a state in federal court for monetary damages. This case, along with several others involving different civil rights statutes, has eroded any possibility for state employees to receive monetary damages. A state employee may still file for prospective relief, and they can file against state officials in their individual capacity as representing the state.
Williams vs. Toyota Manufacturing Co., 2002
In this case, the plaintiff, an assembler who became disabled with carpel tunnel syndrome and could no longer perform her job, filed a complaint that she was disabled because she could not perform “a class of manual tasks” thus substantially limiting a major life activity under the ADA. The Supreme Court held that “manual tasks” indeed might be classified as a major life activity, but Williams didn’t meet the burden of showing that her work as an assembler constituted a major life activity that most people in the population would have to perform. In other words, most people didn’t have to perform assembly work. A plaintiff would have to argue that they couldn’t perform ordinary tasks like housework, dressing, gardening, etc. in order for it to be considered an ordinary manual task that people would perform as a major life activity.
Barnett vs. U.S. Airways, 2002
Here the court took a look at reasonable accommodation as it relates to a company seniority roster of jobs. Mr. Barnett became disabled and could not perform his work. He was able to bid on a job that was easier because he had the seniority. He held it until someone else with more seniority, not disabled, outbid him for it. The plaintiff asked that, as a reasonable accommodation, he remain in the job. The Supreme Court held that a company does not have to allow someone to retain a job that is part of their seniority-rated jobs, as a reasonable accommodation. The court came to this decision despite the fact that this particular job was not based on a collective bargaining agreement, but on a unilateral decision by the company regarding what jobs would be considered senior jobs. This decision is troubling as it would seem to indicate that a company could avoid accommodating a disabled employee simply by making easier jobs more senior jobs. The court did advise, however, that if there were enough loopholes in how the seniority system was applied, if there were other ways in which a job could be taken out of that seniority roster, then a company couldn’t maintain the fiction that this job was not available for transfer to someone as a reasonable accommodation.
Chevron vs. Echazabal, 2002
Readers will remember that this was the case where a contract employee did maintenance work for 20 years for Chevron. Then, when he applied to be a Chevron employee on staff doing the same work, he was given a medical exam. When it was found that he had asymptomatic hepatitis C, he was not hired, and terminated from the contract as well. The issue in this case was whether the court in deciding this case should be instructed by the statutory language in the employment provisions of the ADA or the regulatory language promulgated by EEOC. The statutory language indicates that a “direct threat” is only available if there is a direct threat to other employees. The EEOC regulations, promulgated on the employment provisions, indicated that a “direct threat” in addition to concerning a direct threat to others, could also take into consideration a direct threat to the employee himself. The company argued that the EEOC definition, rather than the statutory definition, should be used. Chevron argued that the toxic chemicals Echazabal would be exposed to could have a damaging effect on his liver, and he should not be hired, as the company would then be liable for his injuries. Of course, he would have been performing the exact same job he had already performed for 20 years. Also, the Supreme Court had decided in other cases that EEOC had overstepped its boundaries by promulgating regulations that went beyond the statutory language. However, in this case, the Court held that EEOCs regulations governed. Also, Chevron could refuse to hire the plaintiff based on a business necessity of trying to alleviate liability.
EEOC vs. Wafflehouse, 2002
Here was the only good decision for employees in the Supreme Court cases in 2002. This case involved an employee who had signed, as a condition of employment, an agreement to arbitrate any issues rather than sue. He filed a complaint with EEOC after he was terminated, and EEOC ended up filing a lawsuit on this matter against Waffle-house. The Supreme Court held that EEOC was not a party to the employee’s agreement for binding arbitration, and that EEOC could sue as a third party, and could also ask for damages for the employee.
Title II Cases Involving Public Agencies
Barnes vs. Gorman, 2002
This was the case regarding the person who was quadriplegic and used a wheelchair, who was ordered out of a bar for disorderly conduct and carried to the police station in an inaccessible police car which caused permanent lasting injury. The jury in the district court case awarded him a million dollars in actual damages, and 1.2 million in punitive damages. The Supreme Court ultimately held that punitive damages are not available to plaintiffs in Title II cases. But here, at least, Mr. Gorman got the original million-dollar jury verdict for actual damages.
Tenessee vs. Lane, 2004
Here, the Supreme Court took up the issue of whether a state was immune from lawsuits for money damages brought under Title II of the ADA, in the same way as it had decided states were immune from money damage suits under Title I of the ADA.
Readers will remember that this was the case where persons with disabilities who used wheelchairs were denied dignified access to courthouses without being carried in. Here the Supreme Court finally came through and found that, when the issue involves a fundamental right, such as availing oneself of the services provided by a courthouse, or when a party or a witness to a case, a plaintiff could seek monetary damages for denial of access as a fundamental right. Future cases will involve whether or not the Supreme Court is willing to expand this right beyond making courthouses accessible.
Goodman vs. Georgia, 2005
This is a case that the Supreme Court has just accepted for review and will not be argued until next term, 2005-2006. This case involves whether or not a court will expand the exemption to state immunity against Title II lawsuits for a prisoner who is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. The facts seem to be that the prison in which the plaintiff is held keeps him in isolation for 23 out of 24 hours a day. The cell isn’t even wide enough for him to turn around in when using his wheelchair, and showers and toilets are not accessible. The U.S. has intervened on the side of the plaintiff in this case. We’ll have to wait until next year to see what happens in this case. Will accessible prison cells rise to the level of a fundamental right for purposes of a monetary damages provision in a Title II lawsuit under the ADA?
Public Accommodation Cases
The Supreme Court has decided two cases that involve issues under Title III of the ADA, dealing with public accommodations/private businesses.
Martin vs. PGA, 2001
In this case involving the professional amateur golfer, Casey Martin, the court first held that a sports facility needs to be accessible, not only to spectators, but in certain cases to participants as well. This particular case, as readers will remember, involved Casey Martin, with serious physical impairments, which wanted to use a golf cart during the final prong of the PGA competition-the only prong in which golf carts were not allowed. The court determined that in this case allowing a golfer to use a cart did not constitute a substantial alteration to the program. In other words, it didn’t give Martin an advantage over other golfers because, as the court stated, even using a cart, Martin is in more pain and discomfort and has more difficulty than a walking golfer in competing. This is a narrow ruling but a significant one because it holds out hope that other persons with disabilities might be able to participate in sports, as well as be a spectator at sporting events.
Spector vs. Norwegian Cruise Lines, 2005
This case ultimately holds that cruise lines, even foreign-based ones, do not escape coverage under Title III of the ADA even though cruise lines were not one of the specific businesses listed under the definition of public accommodations. At this point, the court seems to be hinting that such coverage may not extend to requiring cruise lines, (either foreign-based or domestic) to remove architectural barriers. Hopefully, a more enlightened court can re-visit this issue at some time.
The full account of most of these cases can be found by looking at back issues of Access Press on their web site, www.testing.accesspress.org, from 2002 to date. What happens next at the Supreme Court level depends greatly on whether or not a current justice retires and our current president has the opportunity to appoint someone else. If that happens during our current administration, the appointment may well be someone on the most conservative end of the spectrum. Remember that President Bush has said that he believes someone like Justices Thomas or Scalia would be the best appointees. They are the most conservative justices. The rumors that Chief Justice Rehnquist (on the conservative side) would step down. That hasn’t happened as yet. If he steps down, not only will the administration be able to appoint another justice, even more conservative than Chief Justice Rehnquist, but this administration would be able to appoint the next chief justice. We’ll all need to pay close attention to the Supreme Court and its makeup in the next few years.
Editor’s Note: Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court and a crucial swing vote on divisive social issues such as abortion, is retiring. She is 75 years old.