Are Ergonomic Injuries Disabling?

When the Supreme Court unanimously rejected a lower court's finding that an assembly-line worker with carpal tunnel syndrome was disabled, employers called the opinion a big win. Labor representatives aren't so sure. Here's why.

Once again, the U.S. government decided whether a federal regulation should apply to work-related repetitive motion disorders. This time it was the Supreme Court, not Congress or the Labor Department, seeking to determine if the Americans with Disabilities Act's (ADA) murky definition of disability applies to a woman with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

And once again, the federal government appeared to side with industry in the long-running battle over ergonomics. Ella Williams, the plaintiff in this case, had convinced a lower federal court that because of her severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome and related ailments, she was unable to perform manual tasks and, therefore, entitled to special ADA protection.

But the Supreme Court reversed the decision. The high court ruled that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit did not apply the proper standard because it analyzed only a limited class of manual tasks and failed to ask whether Williams' impairment prevented her from performing tasks that "are of central importance to most people's daily lives."

A Big Win For Employers?

Contrary to some early press reports on the case, labor and management representatives differed on the significance of the ruling. "A big win" is what the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) called the decision when it was announced Jan. 8. "Today's Supreme Court ruling makes it clear the ADA is still the Americans with Disabilities Act, not the Americans with Injuries Act," said Pat Cleary, NAM's senior vice president for human resources policy.

Attorneys with experience representing workers, however, said the opinion did not break new ground. "I don't see this as a big win for employers," said Jennifer Mathis, staff attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a Washington, D.C., organization that represents many plaintiffs in ADA cases.

Mathis argued that too little attention is being paid to aspects of the decision that were good for plaintiffs. "The high court said you don't have to show you are limited in a broad range of different manual tasks," she said. "If there are one or two tasks that are really important that you can't do, like gripping a pen, that may be enough."

Second, the Sixth Circuit test actually made it harder to prove disability than it should have done, because the lower court required that manual task impairments had to be related to the person's work. The Supreme Court relaxed this standard, so now a worker need not show that the manual task impairments are work-related.

Part of the reason for the divergent spins on the ruling may be that labor and industry lawyers are already arguing their next ADA cases. Another reason for the different reactions may be that labor was not as afraid about the implications of losing this case as were employer groups. Management was extremely worried about what would have happened had the Sixth Circuit's definition of disability prevailed.

The stakes for industry in this case may not have been quite as high as the failed federal effort to issue an ergonomic standard. The large lineup of heavy hitters offering friend-of-the-court briefs, however, underscored the importance to employers of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. v. Ella Williams, No.00-1089.

NAM, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Trucking Associations, two auto manufacturing associations and the Bush administration, backed Toyota. The AFL-CIO, the National Council on Disability and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America backed Williams when the case was argued before the Supreme Court last November.

On the basis of their written and oral arguments, what most worried management was that the Sixth Circuit ruling would have greatly expanded the number of workers entitled to special ADA protections, because the court designated Williams as disabled just because she could not perform a few work-related tasks.

According to the brief submitted by the U.S. Chamber along with several manufacturing associations, the "Sixth Circuit's sweeping and unwarranted expansion" of the ADA's protected class should be reversed. Many employers are relieved the Supreme Court has done just that, but many questions about how to interpret ADA remain.

Who Gets to be Disabled?

The question of who is entitled to disability protection under ADA has spawned hundreds of lawsuits such as Williams'. One reason for the litigation is that a disabled person has more rights in the workplace than one who is not disabled. Another reason is the open-ended legal definition of "disability."

According to ADA, a disability must "substantially limit one or more of the major life activities." How serious must a limitation be to qualify as "substantial? What are the "major life activities"? These are two questions raised, and still only partially resolved, by the Williams case.

The case came before the Supreme Court not because it is unusual, but because it raises questions that have bedeviled U.S. companies and courts for years. Williams' argument that her repetitive motion injuries entitle her to special ADA protection dates to 1993. That's when she developed bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis in her arms and hands after using vibrating pneumatic tools on the assembly line at Toyota Motor Corp.'s Georgetown, Ky., plant, where she had worked for three years.

Williams then filed her first ADA claim, saying Toyota would not accommodate her disability. She settled the case after Toyota followed a company doctor's recommendation that she be assigned to light duty only. The company moved her to a job as a paint inspector, where she worked for approximately three years looking for defective paint and manually wiping down each newly painted car as it passed on the conveyor. Toyota ordinarily requires paint inspectors to do additional tasks.

In 1996, Toyota expanded Williams' duties to include a more demanding job, but one that other paint inspectors at the plant had to do: wiping down passing cars with a highlight oil. This task required Williams to grip a block of wood with a sponge on the end while keeping her hands and arms raised at shoulder height for several hours. Williams argued that her ligament and muscle problems reappeared in a more severe form as a result of the new job, and she developed tendinitis in her shoulders and neck.

Alleging that Toyota refused her request to eliminate this new part of her job, Williams filed suit in federal court claiming that she was disabled and that the company failed to provide her "reasonable accommodation" as required by ADA.

Toyota countered that Williams was not disabled according to ADA criteria, but only unable to perform the tasks necessary to do her particular job. The company argued she could do many other types of jobs, as well as perform domestic chores and take care of her personal hygiene.

Critics of the legal history of ADA, such as NAM deputy general counsel Quentin Riegel and U.S. Chamber attorneys, contend that Williams' attempt to push the envelope of who is disabled is all too common. They point out that the leading types of ADA complaints have to do with back and nonparalytic orthopedic impairment (see "Impairment" chart at right). When Congress enacted ADA in 1992, these critics argue, it intended to protect a narrow class of severely disabled individuals, not people with back problems.

"There's been a huge amount of litigation on this issue," said Stephen Bokat, a U.S. Chamber attorney who worked on the organization's brief in the Williams case. "You see every week case after case alleging a disability for obesity, mental problems - anything that can go wrong with a person's physical or mental abilities."

The third most common ADA discrimination complaint is not even for a physical disability, but is lodged by those who are "regarded as disabled." Women often claim this kind of discrimination.

Lynn Rhinehart, associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO, counters that in recent years, the courts have actually been narrowing the legal definition of disability. One fact seems to support Rhinehart: Since 1995, the number of people lodging formal complaints of discrimination under ADA has declined (see "Good News?" chart on page 47).

Speaking before the high court issued its decision, Riegel feared that a loss in the case would have substantial implications for all employers. "You can imagine situations in which virtually every workplace has someone who could make a claim about pain or discomfort that is not clearly work-related, but that could be regulated in various ways," he said.

MSDs May Still Be Disabling

On the other hand, even before the high court's decision, Rhinehart thought she detected a bit of "alarmism" in her opponents' Supreme Court briefs. Rhinehart co-authored a friend of the court brief for Williams. The labor lawyer's reaction to the final ruling on the case: "I don't think this decision broke huge new ground."

Rhinehart acknowledged that the Supreme Court's definition of disability is stricter than the Sixth Circuit's, because the new test requires proof of a much broader impact on the individual's life than that required by the lower court.

Williams contended she is disabled because her ability to perform manual tasks, such as those required by her assembly-line job, housework, gardening, lifting and playing with her children, is limited.

It is important to note that the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether Williams is disabled. The high court did decide that the Sixth Circuit was too quick to conclude Williams is disabled and that the lower court wrongly disregarded evidence Toyota thought important, such as her ability to do household chores, brush her teeth, bathe and other activities "of central importance to people's daily lives."

Rhinehart pointed out, however, that the Supreme Court explicitly acknowledged for the first time that carpal tunnel syndrome can be disabling. The high court's new standard for disability - an impairment that prevents or restricts a person from performing tasks that are of central importance to most people's lives - is still so broad that it will be up to lower courts to fill in the details on a case-by-case basis.

At one point, the decision, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, explicitly acknowledges the difficulty of making general rules about disabling MSDs. "An individualized assessment of the effect of an impairment is particularly necessary when the impairment is one such as carpal tunnel syndrome, in which symptoms vary widely from person to person," O'Connor wrote.

Williams will have an opportunity to meet the new test, as the Supreme Court decision remanded her case and directed the lower court to apply the new standard. Rhinehart predicted that in applying the new standard, lower courts now will look for the inability of people to do the sorts of things they do every day, such as driving or lifting groceries or a child.

Hoping for Clarity

"The courts are in disarray about how to define disability, which is why the Supreme Court took the case," Bokat said. "We wanted to win this case, but we're also interested in clarity." The confusion tends to increase the likelihood of litigation, and employers may face hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs when they have to defend against an ADA complaint.

It remains to be seen whether the new standard for disability claims clarifies the situation. The desire for greater clarity in ADA interpretation, however, is something that unites both sides in the Williams case. One encouraging sign on this front is that plaintiff and defendant lawyers seem to agree that the high court's decision could help reduce the confusion.

What the court did in the Williams case was to reaffirm that merely having an impairment that affects an employee's ability to do a specific job does not make the employee disabled under the ADA, said Scott Faust, a partner in the Boston office of McDermott, Will & Emery who heads the labor and employment group for the firm, which often represents employers. "The impairment must affect a major life activity, which is what the statute says, but some courts have lost sight of this," he explained. "The Supreme Court just clarified the test for disability."

Faust was particularly pleased that the decision was unanimous. In some decisions, there are compelling dissents, and compromises are made in the majority decision that render the decision less clear. As a result, lower courts and lawyers can spend years trying to interpret what the decision means. "The lack of clarity leads to more litigation," he said. "But that's not the case here. The court couldn't have been clearer."

Rhinehart recalled that during oral arguments, lawyers on both sides said they thought the Sixth Circuit's test was muddled. "The Supreme Court cleared it up for them - unanimously," she said.

Mathis agreed. "I don't think this decision will affect a lot of people, as some quotes in the press are suggesting," she said. "This doesn't change the test, it just clarifies it."

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