U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Definition of Disability
Maureen Toner and David W. Arnold, Esq.
Reid Psychological Systems
On June 22, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court held that "...the determination
of whether an individual is disabled should be made with reference to measures
that mitigate the individual's impairment, including, in this instance,
eyeglasses and contact lenses." See Sutton v. United Air Lines, No.
97_1943, June 22, 1999. Consistent rulings were also issued by the Supreme Court
in Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (97_1992) and Albertson's,
Inc. v. Kirkingburg (98_591). These three rulings provide guidance and
uniformity to lower courts that have long been split on the issue of mitigating
measures, while limiting the scope of disabilities for which individuals can
seek protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In the Sutton case, the plaintiffs were twin sisters with severe
myopiaeach individual's visual acuity was 20/200 or worse in the right eye
and 20/400 or worse in the left eye. Plaintiffs had applied for employment as
commercial airline pilots with United Airlines and met its basic employment
requirements, except for the uncorrected visual acuity requirement of 20/100 or
better. As a result of being denied employment, plaintiffs filed suit under ADA,
alleging that they had been discriminated against on the basis of a disability
or because they were regarded as having a disability.
The district court dismissed the complaint because the plaintiffs were not
disabled since they could fully correct their visual impairment through the use
of glasses or contact lenses. As a result of these corrective measures,
plaintiffs were not substantially limited in any major life activity. The
district court also found that there were insufficient allegations supporting
plaintiffs' claim that United regarded them as having a disability. Consistent
with the lower court's reasoning, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
affirmed the ruling.
In affirming the lower court's opinion, the Supreme Court determined that the
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) and Department of Justice's
(DOJ) interpretive guidance, indicating that disabilities should be determined
without regard to mitigating measures, was incorrect. The Court reasoned that
the statutory language "substantially limits" is properly read as
requiring a plaintiff to be presentlynot potentially or
hypotheticallysubstantially limited in a major life activity in order to be
disabled. "A `disability' exists only where an impairment `substantially
limits' a major life activity, not where it `might,' `could,' or `would' be
substantially limiting if mitigating measures were not taken." The Court
acknowledged that an impairment still exists notwithstanding mitigating
measures; however, it may not substantially limit a major life activity because
of such measures.
The Court also pointed out that the ADA requires that disabilities be
evaluated on an individualized basis. In contrast, the administrative agencies'
position that individuals be judged in their uncorrected or unmitigated state
runs directly counter to the mandate of individualized assessment. According to
the Court, the agencies' position would create a system in which individuals
would be treated as members of a group having similar impairments, as opposed to
individuals. "This is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the
ADA." The Court also noted that not considering the impact of mitigating
measures could lead to the anomalous result of not considering any of the
negative side effects such measures may create (e.g., antipsychotic drugs may
cause painful seizures).
The Supreme Court further pointed out that the ADA references the
Congressional finding that 43 million Americans have disabilities. See Section
12101(a)(1). In light of the fact that a much larger number of Americans have
corrected impairments, it is obvious that such individuals were not intended to
be covered by the ADA.
Finally, with regard to the issue of being regarded as disabled, the Court
found that the plaintiffs had not alleged, and could not demonstrate, that
United regarded them as disabled.
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