Supreme Court limits disability law in case of worker with carpal tunnel syndrome

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a victory for employers, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for workers to demand special treatment when they suffer partial physical disabilities such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Tuesday, January 8th 2002, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a victory for employers, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for workers to demand special treatment when they suffer partial physical disabilities such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Tuesday's unanimous decision in the case of a former assembly line worker narrows the scope of the landmark civil rights law that protects the disabled. It was the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that set boundaries on who is covered by the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, and tell why.

Disability cannot be measured solely on the ability to do certain tasks at work, the court ruled Tuesday. Whether someone is disabled also must depend on the ease with which they perform ``activities that are of central importance to most people's daily lives,'' Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.

Into that category the court put walking, seeing and hearing, among other things. The court said it does not extend, as a lower federal appeals court held, to the ability to perform some manual tasks on the job.

The disability must also be permanent or long-lasting, O'Connor wrote.

``It is insufficient for individuals attempting to prove disability status under this test to merely submit evidence of a medial disability,'' O'Connor wrote.

Former Toyota engine assembler Ella Williams had such a medical diagnosis and instructions from her doctor not to lift too much weight or extend her arms for too long lest she aggravate her wrist, arm and shoulder problems. She blames repetitive assembly line work for her injuries and has said the problems arose within months of taking a job at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky.

Her restrictions meant Williams could perform some but not all her assigned duties on the factory floor, she said. She asked for reassignment and sued under the ADA when Toyota refused.

Williams' disability does not prevent her from doing many tasks at home and at work. She can, for example, cook, clean and garden so long as she does not overdo it. She had no problems performing a light-duty quality inspection job at Toyota.

The high court reversed a decision in Williams' favor from the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and sent the case back for reconsideration.

The ADA is probably best known for requiring wheelchair ramps at many public buildings. It bans discrimination against the disabled on the job and elsewhere, and obligates employers to make accommodations for disabled workers.

The court noted that in passing the ADA, Congress referred to 43 million Americans with physical or mental disabilities.

``If Congress intended everyone with a physical impairment that precluded the performance of some isolated, unimportant or particularly difficult manual task to qualify as disabled, the number of disabled Americans would surely have been much higher,'' the court wrote.

The ruling does not mean that anyone with carpal tunnel syndrome or similar partial disabilities is automatically excluded from protection by the ADA, but it will make such claims harder to prove, lawyers said.

``The court seems to be saying that your disability, in order to be protected, has to be across the board,'' said William Stothers, spokesman for the Center for an Accessible Society, a disability rights group. ``It's going to be much more difficult for people to seek protection from the act if problems occur on the job.''

The ruling is a great relief to employers, who feared the cost of accommodating minor impairments or vague complaints, said Christopher Collins, a lawyer with the New York firm Proskauer Rose, who has represented businesses in disability cases.

``Employers have always been skeptical of disabilities that arise or become apparent when someone clocks in and end when they clock out,'' Collins said. ``Implicit in the Supreme Court's decision is their own skepticism on that point.''

Williams' backers have called her case an example of just the kind of discrimination the ADA was supposed to prevent. Someone who wants to work should be encouraged to do so, even if that person cannot perform all tasks associated with a given job, her lawyer argued to the high court.

A worker in Williams' position is now faced with a Catch-22, said Arlene Mayerson, a lawyer with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

``At the same time they are trying to show how much it affects their daily life, they are also trying to prove they are qualified for the job,'' Mayerson said. ``By proving you're disabled, you can prove yourself right out of a job.''

The case is Toyota v. Williams, 00-1089.

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