If an impairment - such as carpal tunnel syndrome - prevents an employee from performing a job-related task, is that employee covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)?
Specifically, was Ella Williams, an employee at Toyota Motor Corp.''s facility in Georgetown, Ky., who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, supposed to be protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 when she was fired from her job?
That''s the question the U.S. Supreme Court is pondering, and the case could result in the Supreme Court narrowing the reach of ADA. The law bans job discrimination against disabled workers and that requires employers to offer them reasonable accommodations.
Williams and her husband began working at the Georgetown facility in 1990. Within months, claims Williams, her shoulders began to ache, her wrists swelled and her hands curled into claws. She filed a workers'' compensation case and sued under the ADA. In 1993, Williams returned to Toyota with a doctor''s instructions to perform only light duty. She was given a job inspecting paint.
In 1996, Toyota decided that all quality inspectors must be able to do four different inspection jobs. One task required her to wipe down passing cars at a rate of one car per minute, which caused her pain and numbness, said Williams. She refused to perform the job task, and she and Toyota disagree as to whether she was fired or resigned.
Williams took her case to the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court, which ruled that an impairment that prevented Williams from performing a job task was, in fact, a disability. Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice and Toyota Motor Corp. are arguing that the appeals court erred, that the inability to perform a specific job task does not constitute a disability and that William''s firing was justified.
Toyota is not arguing that Williams has an impairment, but the company says it has made accommodations to help her and that it should not have to create a job for her.
Williams'' attorney, Robert Rosenbaum, told the Supreme Court that employers could do an end run around the law if workers who suffer partial disabilities are not covered.
"The ADA is about working. It''s about a lawsuit to try to keep a job," Rosenbaum told the Supreme Court. "That''s a fundamental American value. Why shouldn''t it be protected?"
Toyota''s attorney, John Roberts, argued that in order for an employee to be covered by the ADA there has to be "a substantial limitation on a major life activity." Williams, claimed Roberts, suffered "a specialized and idiosyncratic limitation," which is not covered by the ADA according to him.
Williams admits she can do other assembly line work, noted Roberts. "The record shows Ms. Williams can do a broad range of tasks," Roberts told the justices, and she therefore does not meet the definition of a disabled person contained in the ADA.
Barbara McDowell, an attorney for the Justice Department, said the ADA requires the disabled person to have "a significant restriction relative to a normal person." That was not the case with Williams, she argued.
Justice Antonin Scalia said the evidence in the case did not indicate that Williams was unable to substantially perform manual tasks, and he questioned whether carpal tunnel syndrome was a disability.
Rosenbaum argued that Williams was disabled, saying she could not lift anything weighing more than 20 pounds and was unable to use her arms and shoulders.
Justice Sandra Day O''Connor commented that an employee who suffers a condition like carpal tunnel syndrome should use the workers'' compensation system, rather than the ADA. ADA was created for people "who [are] wheelchair bound," she said.
ADA defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities." The question of whether or not Williams meets that definition is now in the hands of the Supreme Court. A decision is expected in the case early next year.
The case could be significant for another reason: Toyota''s attorney John Roberts, has been nominated by President George W. Bush to be a U.S. appeals court judge.
by Sandy Smith