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The Constricted Coverage of the ADA Following Toyota

Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§12101-12213 (“ADA”), more than a decade ago, employers have struggled to find clear, bright-line interpretation of the law.  Throughout this period, courts have been continuously sorting out the often elusive meaning of the statute’s most basic requirements.  However, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. v. Williams, 122 S.Ct. 681 (2002), should help to clarify some of the confusion as to at least one seminal issue:  the scope of the ADA provisions requiring reasonable accommodations of disabilities.

In Toyota, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that a physical impairment which merely inhibits an employee from performing certain work-related tasks qualifies the employee as “disabled” within the meaning of the ADA.  Rather, the ADA requires an employee to demonstrate that he or she is affected by a long term or permanent impairment that renders the employee “unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people’s daily lives,” not just certain tasks associated with the employee’s specific job.

In addition, Toyota remedies a misapplication of the Court’s prior decision in Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999), that would have expanded the pool of potential ADA plaintiffs beyond the boundaries anticipated by Congress.  Sutton held that an employee claiming to be substantially limited in the major life activity of “working” is disabled only if the employee is “unable to perform a class or broad range of jobs.”1  Although the Court intended that Sutton apply only to the limited class of cases where the major life activity at issue is “working,” the Sixth Circuit, relying on Sutton, crafted its own unique standard for “disability” where the major life activity at issue was “performing manual tasks.”  

Specifically, the Sixth Circuit held that an employee is disabled if she is merely inhibited in “a class of manual activities affecting the ability to perform tasks at work.”2  As such, the Sixth Circuit deemed the employee’s capacity to accomplish tasks outside of the workplace as irrelevant to a determination of her status as “disabled” under the ADA.  By contrast, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Toyota insists that an examination only as to the employee’s incapacity with respect to work-related activities is too narrow a prism for a disability determination, and instead demands that courts consider the employee’s ability to perform those tasks, both work and non-work related, that are central to most people’s daily lives.

Toyota is sure to be a landmark decision in the field of employment law  that will benefit employers by more narrowly construing the class of individuals who qualify for reasonable accommodation in the workplace, and ultimately who are eligible to enforce their right to such accommodation under the ADA.  In this article we analyze the Court’s decision in Toyota and project as to some of its implications on the handling of potential claims under the ADA.

Statutory Framework of the ADA

The core requirement of the ADA as it affects employers is to provide “reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee” unless the employer can show that the accommodation would impose an “undue hardship.”3  The ADA defines a “qualified individual with a disability” as an employee or applicant who with or without reasonable accommodation can perform the “essential functions” of the job which the individual holds or desires.4  Employees with a “disability” include those having:  “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such an individual; (B) a record of such impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.”5  

To qualify as disabled under subsection (A), as a threshold matter, an employee must have a physical or mental impairment.  However, merely having an impairment is insufficient.  Rather, the employee also must have an impairment that limits a “major life activity,” such as walking, seeing, hearing, performing manual tasks, or working.6  In addition, the limitation on the major life activity must be “substantial” or significantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration of performance as compared to the average person who is capable of performing the same major life activity.7

Toyota v. Williams

In the Toyota case, the Court reviewed each of the fundamental requirements of the ADA in the context of a commonplace set of circumstances.  Plaintiff, Ella Williams, worked on the assembly line at Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Kentucky as a quality control inspector.  Williams first developed bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and bilateral tendinitis in 1992. Toyota thereafter reassigned Williams from the engine fabrication assembly line to the quality control team.  This group was responsible for inspecting and repairing the paint on cars as the cars moved along a conveyor.  Williams’ role, however, was limited to visual inspection plus a limited manual task of wiping each car with a gloved hand.  Williams was physically capable of performing this job and her performance was satisfactory.  

Toyota modified her responsibilities in 1996 to require that she apply a highlight oil to passing cars with a sponge attached to a block of wood.  This activity required that Williams hold her hands and arms at shoulder height for several hours at a time.  When pain developed in her arms and shoulders, Williams was again diagnosed with tendinitis as well as nerve compression, and requested that Toyota accommodate her by rescinding the 1996 modifications.  Toyota denied her request and when Williams began to miss work on a regular basis, Toyota terminated her employment.

Williams subsequently brought suit under the ADA in the United States District Court in Kentucky, claiming that Toyota discriminated against her because of her disability by failing to offer her a reasonable accommodation.  Toyota moved for and received summary judgment on the ground that Williams’ impairment did not constitute a disability under the ADA.

Nevertheless, a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit, relying on Sutton, reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment.  The Sixth Circuit concluded, as a matter of law, that Williams was disabled because she was substantially limited in the major life activity of “performing manual tasks” in as much as she was unable to perform a range of tasks associated with her assembly line job.  Such an application of Sutton was unprecedented as no other Circuit had applied Sutton to a major life activity other than “working.”8

The set of tasks which Williams’ impairment allegedly precluded included only those requiring the “gripping of tools and arms to be kept overhead or at shoulder level repetitively for an extended period of time.”9  The Sixth Circuit disregarded evidence of Williams’ abilities outside the narrow subset of assembly line duties, including the non-work related tasks of tending to her personal hygiene or carrying out household chores.  Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit granted Williams partial summary judgment on the issue of whether she was disabled.10  However, since triable issues of fact existed as to whether Toyota failed to reasonably accommodate Williams, the Sixth Circuit remanded the case for further proceedings.

The Supreme Court Opinion
The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the question of whether the Sixth Circuit properly determined that the evidence of Williams’ impairments was sufficient to establish as a matter of law that she was substantiallylimited in the major life activity of “performing manual tasks.”11  To resolve this question, the Court examined the fundamental issue of what a plaintiff must demonstrate to establish a substantial limitation upon a major life activity.

The Court’s analysis emphasized that the ADA’s definition of “disability” must be strictly construed to create a demanding standard for qualification as disabled.  The Court held that to qualify as “substantially limited in performing manual tasks, an individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.”12  In addition, the impairment must have an impact that is permanent or long-term.

The Court stated that it is, therefore, insufficient for a plaintiff simply to submit evidence of a medical diagnosis.  Rather, the individual claiming coverage must exhibit how he or she is personally affected by the impairment.  Indeed, the Supreme Court noted when determining the existence of a disability, courts should conduct an individualized assessment of the effect of the alleged impairment on the plaintiff.  The Court emphasized that such an individualized assessment is especially important when the impairment has symptoms or effects that vary from person to person.  For example, carpal tunnel syndrome, one of Williams’ impairments, in mild cases only creates intermittent numbness and tingling but, in the extreme, individuals can be permanently restricted in their ability to use their hands and wrists.13

Furthermore, the Court stated that the impairment must affect the plaintiff’s ability to perform the major life activity at issue both inside and outside of the workplace.  The Court noted that the Sixth Circuit improperly extended the holding of Sutton by considering only Williams’ inability to perform a “class” of manual tasks associated with her employment.  Sutton, however, was intended to apply only to cases in which the major life activity at issue was “working.”  Accordingly, the Court held that the central inquiry should have been whether the plaintiff is able to perform a task or set of tasks central to most people’s daily lives.  Clearly, many work-related tasks have an insignificant role in the daily lives of most people.  Therefore, individuals claiming coverage must show how their limitations are relevant to tasks important to an average American, a requirement necessitating evidence from outside the workplace.14

In applying these standards to Williams, the Court determined that it was inappropriate for the Sixth Circuit to grant partial summary judgment to Williams on the issue whether she was substantially limited in the major life activity of “performing manual tasks.”  Williams’ only limitation concerned the performance of tasks that involved gripping tools and holding her arms at shoulder length for an extended period of time.  The Court observed that these are activities that most individuals need not do on a regular basis.  However, even when Williams’ condition was at its worst, she was still able to perform tasks that most people must routinely perform, such as brushing her teeth, washing her face, bathing, tending to her garden, and doing laundry.  Accordingly, the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision and remanded the case for further consideration.15  

The Effect of Toyota
With a clearer and more constricted concept of “disability” now in place, non-severe impairments that previously may have been thought to be covered by the ADA should now be found outside the scope of the statute’s protection.  As in Toyota, this should include many ergonomic injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.
In light of the Court’s decision in Toyota, employers may wish to review and make appropriate changes to existing procedures for determining whether and to what extent an employee claiming to have a disability requires accommodation.  Suggested changes may include:

•  expressly defining “disability” for the purpose of reasonable accommodation rather than merely relying on definitions contained in workers compensation provisions or long term benefits plans;
•  establishing or reinforcing that reasonable accommodations will be considered in accordance with the definition of disability provided by the ADA and/or state disability laws; and
•  requiring that employees who claim to be disabled within the meaning of the statute supply evidence that the consequences of their impairment are more pervasive than merely restricting the performance of work-specific tasks.

Nevertheless, before making any employment decision concerning an employee with an alleged disability, employers also must consider the effect of state law.  Many states, including New York, construe the concept of “disability” under state disability laws more broadly than the standard set by the Supreme Court for the ADA.16  Indeed, some impairments that are no longer protected by the ADA may continue to constitute a disability under state law and, accordingly, may require the employer to provide some level of accommodation.  

In addition, Toyota will impact ADA cases by potentially extending and expanding both the scope and duration of discovery that may be required in federal court litigation.  The amount of discoverable material may increase as a broader array of evidence arguably may be relevant to the determination of whether an employee is disabled.  The time and expense involved with reviewing documents, responding to document requests and interrogatories, and conducting depositions will, therefore, increase.  That said, Toyota also should increase the likelihood of employers obtaining summary judgments as to claims that fall outside the intended reach of the statute.  

1  Id. at 492.
2  224 F.3d 840, 843 (2000).
3  42 U.S.C. §12112(b)(5)(A).
4 42 U.S.C. §12111(8).
5  42 U.S.C. §12102(2).  Only prong (A) of the definition of disability was at issue before the Supreme Court.  Because the Sixth Circuit found Williams was actually impaired, it declined to address whether she had “a record of impairment” or was “regarded as” having an impairment.
6  42 U.S.C. §12102(2)(A).  There are two potential sources that guide courts as to the definition of disability:  the regulations interpreting the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. §706(8)(B), and the EEOC regulations interpreting the ADA.  The regulations to the Rehabilitation Act provide a non-exclusive list of major life activities.  45 CFR §84.3(j)(2)(ii).  However, the EEOC has not heretofore been given authority to issue regulations interpreting “disability.”  The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether the EEOC regulations are valid or deserve deference.  
7  29 CFR §1630.2(j) (2001).  The regulations’ following factors should be considered in determining whether an employee is substantially limited in a major life activity:  the nature and severity of the impairment; the duration or expected duration; and the permanent or long-term impact resulting from the impairment.

8  See, e.g., Tice v. Centre Area Transportation Authority, 247 F.3d 506, 512 (3rd Cir. 2001);  Broussard v. University of California at Berkeley, 192 F.3d 1252, 1257 (9th Cir. 1999).
9  224F.3d at 844
10  See Toyota, 122 S.Ct. at 694.  We note however, that there is no mention in the Sixth Circuit opinion of a motion by Williams for summary judgment.  224 F.3d at 843.
11 Toyota, 122 S.Ct. at 688.
12 Id., 122 S.Ct. at 691.
13 Id., 122 S.Ct. at 692.
14 Id., 122 S.Ct. at 693.
15 The question of whether Toyota was entitled to summary judgment was not presented in Toyota’s petition for certiorari and therefore was not addressed by the Court.
16  See, e.g., State Division of Human Rights v. Xerox Corp., 65 N.Y.2d 213 (1985).