Legal Issues

ACCOMODATING EMPLOYMENT TESTING TO THE NEEDS OF INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES

ADA LEGAL UPDATE

U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Three Important Cases

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects qualified individuals with a disability. A disability is defined under the ADA according to three categories. First, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of the individual. Second, a record of such impairment. Third, being regarded as having such an impairment. On June 22, 1999, the Supreme Court handed down decisions on three important ADA cases (Sutton v. United Airlines No. 97-1993; Murphy v. United Parcel Service No. 97-1992; Albertsons, Inc. v. Kinkingburg No. 98-591). These rulings clarify the definition of a disability and impact the way employers must view their pre-employment selection procedures.

In all three cases, the plaintiff had argued that they were substantially limited in a major life activity and that the employer regarded them as being substantially limited in a major life activity. One of the key issues resolved by the court was whether or not mitigating measures should be considered when making the determination that an individual has an impairment. For example, does the definition of an impairment cover an individual with severe myopia, a condition that can be mitigated with eyeglasses? The EEOC’s regulations advised that an individual should be considered in their unmitigated state; however, the courts had been split in their rulings on this issue. In handing down these rulings, the Supreme Court rejected the EEOC’s definition, and determined that the present status of an individual must be considered with mitigating measures. In their arguments, the Supreme Court noted that the EEOC did not have the authority to determine the definition of a disability and instead turned to the congressional record and the language of the statute for guidance in making their decision. The statute defines disability as limiting a major life activity for that individual.

Because of these decisions, the definition of disability has been substantially narrowed. The Court reaffirmed that any analysis must be done on an individual, case-by-case basis. In clarifying the definition of disability, the Supreme Court has indicated that you must evaluate the disability in the light of mitigating measures. The Court also found that an inability to perform only one particular job may not be a limitation in a major life activity for the individual, and in fact (although they did not rule on this specific issue), questioned whether work could be considered a major life activity.


ADA LEGAL UPDATE

Ninth Circuit Says Applicant Cannot be Refused Because of Threat to Their Own Health

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Echazabal v. Chevron (98 5551) reversed a lower court’s ruling and held that job applicants who are otherwise qualified cannot be denied jobs because they pose a threat to their own health or safety in the workplace. The decision triggered protests from many employers who were concerned that they might now be forced to compromise safety in the workplace to comply with the decision. The court held that the “direct threat” defense available to employers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not apply to employees who pose a direct threat only to their own health and safety. The “defense’s” section of Title I of the ADA states that an employer may impose as a qualification standard a requirement that an individual will not pose a “direct threat” to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace.

In reversing the lower court ruling, the Sixth Circuit indicated that posing a risk to one’s own self or safety could not be considered as part of the “direct threat” defense. Judge Steven Reinhardt wrote, “Congress concluded that disabled persons should be afforded the opportunity to decide for themselves what risks to undertake” when it passed the ADA. The decision is contrary to the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidelines, which state that employers may defend themselves against discrimination suits by showing that a prospective job candidate presents a threat to himself.

Because of these decisions, the definition of disability has been substantially narrowed. The Court reaffirmed that any analysis must be done on an individual, case-by-case basis. In clarifying the definition of disability, the Supreme Court has indicated that you must evaluate the disability in the light of mitigating measures. The Court also found that an inability to perform only one particular job may not be a limitation in a major life activity for the individual, and in fact (although they did not rule on this specific issue), questioned whether work could be considered a major life activity.

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Uniform Guidelines

Guidance designed to assist employers in determining proper use of tests and other selection procedures in compliance with Federal law. Click here. PDF