Supreme Court Issues Ruling Favorable to Social Security Disability Applicants Who Sue Their Former Employers for Disability Discrimination Under the Americans With Disabilities Act
In a pair of decisions announced on June 22, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in determining whether an individual is "disabled" under the Americans With Disabilities Act (the "ADA"), the extent of the individual's impairment must be evaluated in light of any corrective measures employed by the individual to offset the effects of the impairment. Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., No. 97-1943, 1999 WL 407488 (June 22, 1999); Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc., No. 97-1992, 1999 WL 407472 (June 22, 1999). Both decisions turned on whether the plaintiffs' physical impairments (severe myopism in one case; severe hypertension in the other) were properly considered in their mitigated state (i.e., taking into account corrective lenses, medication or other palliative measures) for purposes of determining whether plaintiffs were "disabled" and therefore covered by the ADA. Declining to follow interpretive guidelines on the ADA issued by both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department, a divided Supreme Court answered this question affirmatively.
The ADA prohibits discrimination "against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to job application procedures, hiring, advancement or discharge of employees." 42 U.S.C. § 12112. A "disability" under the ADA is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities...." 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2). "Major life activities" have been defined to include "working."
In Sutton and Murphy, the Supreme Court noted first that by its terms, the ADA applies only to impairments that actually substantially limit a major life activity, not to those that might or could have such an effect, absent medication or other corrective measures. Second, the Court relied on the language in the ADA indicating that the question of disability is to be determined on an individualized basis in concluding that the determination of whether an individual is disabled must be based on the individual's actual condition, not on general information about how an uncorrected impairment usually affects individuals. Finally, the Court pointed to a Congressional finding set forth in section 1 of the ADA that 43 million Americans are disabled. Because the number of Americans who would meet the ADA definition of "disabled" if the corrective measures they employ were not taken into account would exceed 160 million, the Court concluded that Congress intended the ADA to apply to only those individuals who meet the ADA definition of disability even with corrective measures.
The plaintiffs in Sutton and Murphy claimed that, even if they were not disabled under the ADA, they were nonetheless covered by the statute because their employers regarded them as disabled. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals "regarded as" disabled as well as against those who are actually disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2). An employer impermissibly regards an individual as disabled when it mistakenly believes that (i) the individual has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; or (ii) the individual's actual, nonlimiting impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
However, in both Sutton and Murphy, the Court rejected plaintiffs' arguments that they were covered by the ADA even if they were not disabled because the defendant employers regarded them as disabled. The Supreme Court noted that creating physical criteria for a job, without more, does not violate the ADA. Indeed, "[b]y its terms, the ADA allows employers to prefer some physical attributes over others and to establish physical criteria." Sutton, 1999 WL 407488, at *13. According to the Court, an employer's physical criteria are permissible so long as they do not cause the employer to make an employment decision based on an impairment, real or imagined, that it regards as substantially limiting a major life activity. "[A]n employer is free to decide that physical characteristics or medical conditions that do not rise to the level of an impairment -- such as one's height, build, or singing voice -- are preferable to others, just as it is free to decide that some limiting, but not substantially limiting, impairments make individuals less ideally suited for a job." Id. Thus, in Sutton, the plaintiffs were unable to demonstrate that United Air Lines impermissibly perceived them as disabled due to their severe myopism (which precluded them from meeting United's minimum eyesight standards for pilots), because plaintiffs' visual impairment was perceived by United as barring them from only one job -- that of commercial airplane pilot. Similarly, the plaintiff in Murphy, a mechanic for the United Parcel Service, was unable to establish that UPS regarded him as disabled in violation of the ADA when it terminated his employment because his severe hypertension prevented him from obtaining the Department of Transportation health certification required for his job. Here again, the Court concluded that plaintiff had shown, at most, that he was regarded as unable to perform one job; that is, the job of mechanic if that job requires driving a commercial motor vehicle.
The Supreme Court's decisions in Sutton and Murphy have significantly narrowed the scope of potential plaintiffs under the ADA. It is now clear that individuals are "disabled" under the ADA only if their impairment substantially limits a major life activity even with corrective measures, and that individuals are not "regarded as" disabled unless the employer believes erroneously that they are incapable of working in a substantial class of jobs.