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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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