State and county laws dilute the effect of disability rulings. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the definition of a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) will have limited use for Westchester employers struggling with the issue, a pair of lawyers specializing in employment law said.
That’s because the Empire State defines a “disability” more liberally as a medical impairment rather than the national standard that defines it as a condition that impairs at least one major life activity, such as bathing or brushing one’s teeth.
Supreme Court Ruling
Using that narrower meaning, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an automobile plant worker from Kentucky could not be considered disabled because she failed to prove that her carpal tunnel syndrome “substantially limited” a major life activity.
“It is insufficient for individuals attempting to prove disability status under this test to merely submit evidence of a medical diagnosis of an impairment,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the court’s 18-page decision.
Ella Williams, a paint inspector at the Toyota Motor Corp. plant in Georgetown, Ky., was fired for poor attendance that she blamed on her illness. She sued Toyota in a U.S. District Court, claiming the automaker refused to provide her with an ADA-required “reasonable” accommodation from her job polishing cars on the assembly line. Her claim was dismissed by the district court but reinstated by a federal appellate court in Cincinnati.
The Supreme Court referred Williams’ case back to the appellate court for further review (Toyota v. Ella Williams, No. 00-1089).
Who will this ruling affect?
“Before the ruling, employees lost 94 percent of claims filed under ADA because they could not establish that they were disabled to the extent called for under the law. This certainly isn’t going to make it any easier for them,” said Robert Heiferman of Jackson Lewis, the employment law firm that has an office in White Plains.
“Nationally, this ruling is probably a lot more significant than it is in New York,” he said. Heiferman cited the state’s human rights law, which bars discrimination against people with disabilities, as well as the state’s disability definition, which is broad enough to include carpal tunnel syndrome.
In addition, the Human Rights Commission created by Westchester County in 2000 can take action on complaints from individuals alleging discrimination on the basis of a disability.
A lawyer with practices in New York and Connecticut says Westchester employers may benefit from the ruling, notwithstanding the state and county laws.
“For employers, the Supreme Court ruling now creates the ability to allege a new defense in ADA cases,” said Joseph Maya, whose Maya & Associates P.C. specializes in employment and labor law. The firm has offices in New York City and Fairfield, Conn.
The Impact of the Ruling Going Forward
“The Supreme Court ruling is a very significant decision that will provide strong guidance for the lower courts, administrative agencies and certainly the appellate courts in cases concerning disability and employees bringing claims against employees,” Maya said. Disability community advocates criticized the Supreme Court decision, though one advocate said the decision highlighted an issue he said merited further study.
“Part of the problem we see is that there has to be a more universally accepted definition of a disability. A very well-meaning piece of legislation has a lot of confusing language in it. It warrants a second look,” said Robert S. Cole, a principal with his wife, Susan, in Cole Communications of Eastchester, and a board member of the 26 million-member American Association for People With Disabilities, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
By ALEX PHILIPPIDIS
Fairfield County Business Journal
The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable employment law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County. Should you have any questions about age discrimination and workplace discrimination or any other employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut, by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email atJMaya@mayalaw.com.