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What equals a disability under the ADA? Supreme Court to rule

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to tackle the vexing question of just how serious an impairment has to be before it's protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Courts continue to grapple with interpretations of the ADA's definition that a person must be "substantially limited" in a major life activity.

The impairment case is one of two key ADA cases the court will hear when it opens its new term next fall.

Case 1: ADA eligibility. When Ella Williams developed carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis in her hands from working on an assembly line, Toyota transferred her to lighter-duty paint inspection work. There she initially performed only two of four required tasks, but when her job was expanded to include a third duty of wiping down passing cars, she suffered further tendon problems.

Williams eventually was fired and sued Toyota for refusing to allow her to do only the less strenuous parts of the job.

The 6th Circuit majority decided she was substantially limited in "performing manual tasks." Toyota appealed to the Supreme Court. (Williams v. Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc., No. 97-00135, 2000)

Case 2: The ADA and seniority. The second case centers on whether ADA accommodation requirements take precedence over an existing seniority system. (Barnett v. U.S. Air Inc., No. 96-16669, 9th Cir., 2000)

The appeals court accepted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commis-sion's position that a seniority system can't automatically be used to keep a disabled worker from a job. Instead, the employer has to show that violating the system would create an undue hardship.

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