Does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect workers with repetitive motion illnesses, forcing employers to change the workplace so that the affected employees can still draw a paycheck?
The U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it will examine this question, reviewing a lower court decision that could have enormous implications for American companies because of the large number of workers who are suffering from repetitive motion illnesses.
The 1991 law defines "disability" as a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities." Companies are required by the ADA to make "reasonable accommodations" for disabled workers, provided this does not pose an "undue hardship" on the employer.
According to Leslie Rosenbaum, attorney for Ella Williams, his client developed carpal-tunnel syndrome and tendinitis while working on an assembly line at Toyota Motor Corp.''s Georgetown, Ky. plant.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati ruled last year that because Williams was impaired substantially from performing manual tasks she was entitled to the protection of the ADA. Toyota appealed the decision, and now the Supreme Court has agreed to review the case.
The desire to clarify the vexing issue of just what is a disability in the eyes of the law, is one of the reasons the Supreme Court decided to hear this case, according to Washington, D.C., lawyer Stewart Manela, a partner at the law firm Arent Fox.
"You have a division in the federal courts of appeals over what constitutes a disability," said Manela, who specializes in labor and employment law.
Toyota spokesman Jim Wiseman has a similar take on the case. "We felt we did everything we could do to reasonably accommodate her," said Wiseman. "We simply are asking the nation''s highest court to clarify the intent of the ADA."
Williams went to work for Toyota in 1990 and, according to Rosenbaum, she developed carpal-tunnel syndrome within months, filed a worker''s compensation claim and settled a law suit with Toyota that allowed her to return to work at a less physically demanding job doing quality-control inspections.
She worked at this job for three years, until 1996 when Toyota asked her to do the same type of work rotation that her co-workers were doing. Toyota lawyer Jeffrey Savarise said Williams volunteered for the job rotation, which was to last for less than a week, so she would be eligible for promotion.
According to the federal court of appeals, the new task required Williams "to grip a block of wood with a sponge attached to the end and wipe down the passing cars with a highlight oil at the rate of approximately one car per minute." In addition, this new work required Williams to keep her hands and arms up around shoulder height repetitively over several hours.
Savarise said company ergonomists had determined that Williams could perform the new task without aggravating her previous condition, but her ligament and muscle problems reappeared in a more severe form as a result of the new job, with tendinitis now in her shoulders and neck.
Williams asked for her previous job back and according to her Toyota refused, but the automaker disputes this.
Whatever the truth is, the case does raise the question posed by Rosenbaum: "They accommodated her disability previously, so why didn''t they let her continue doing that work?" It may be a question that also arises for Toyota stockholders who take a look at the company''s legal bills, and the risks it faces if it loses.
According to Rosenbaum, if Williams prevails she is looking to collect back pay, damages for humiliation, pain, suffering, and even "front pay" if Toyota says they won''t take her back. Williams is not currently employed, he added.
"Her previous position was probably a very desirable job," explained Manela. "Toyota uses it to bring people back from workers'' comp. because it''s easy, but you don''t plant someone there permanently."
Pushing the ADA Envelope
Expanding the definition of a disability to include carpal-tunnel syndrome and tendinitis could have serious implications for American business. About 25,000 employees a year lose work time because of carpal-tunnel syndrome.
The Sixth Circuit majority determined that Williams'' carpal-tunnel syndrome and tendinitis "are analogous to having missing, damaged, or deformed limbs that prevent her from doing the tasks associated with certain types of manual assembly line jobs, manual product handling jobs, and manual building trade jobs." The court defined these jobs as those that require gripping of tools and repetitive work with hands and arms extended at or above shoulder levels for extended periods of time.
But a vigorous dissenting opinion argued there is little legal precedent for regarding such a "specific and partial limitation" as a disability.
Expanding the definition of who is disabled is just the way the law works, according to Manela, but it raises the possibility that the ADA is now covering many people Congress did not originally intend to protect. Manela said that already the two largest categories of disabilities with ADA protection are back impairments and emotional and psychiatric impairments.
The Toyota v. Williams case will be heard by the Supreme Court this fall.
by James Nash