Former Toyota engine fabrication assembly line worker Ella Williams just got the shaft from the Supreme Court and as a consequence so have tens of thousands of workers who will need but will no longer have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to protect them in the event of a disabling impairment such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
In a unanimous decision (Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, No. 00-1089) the justices ruled that Williams, although impaired, was not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA because carpal tunnel syndrome did not “substantially limit” Williams in any major life activity. Why? Because, in sum, Williams could “still brush her teeth, wash her face, bathe…”!
The Supremes’ approach to the definition of “disabled” in Toyota v. Williams reeks of the same arrogance of power it showed by determining the outcome of the last presidential election in Bush v. Gore.
O’Connor, for instance, writing for the Court said several times in her opinion that she understood the intent of Congress when it passed the ADA. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), one of the original sponsors of the ADA in the House found enough wrong in O’Connor’s “understanding” to write a piece for the Washington Post “Not Exactly What We Intended Justice O’Connor” (Jan. 20, 2002, page B01).
Hoyer said neither O’Connor nor any other Court justice asked him or other members of Congress what that intent was.
Hoyer wrote ” Is this what we had in mind when we passed the ADA — that lawyers for businesses and individuals should spend time and money arguing about whether people can brush their teeth and take out the garbage?” Hoyer answered himself, “Not at all.”
In the article Hoyer explains that the intent was much broader and inclusive. We may well ask what is the intent of the Supreme Court?
Much can be gleaned from past decisions. Given that the Supremes have already narrowed the definition of disability (see Sutton v. United Airlines, Murphy v. United Parcel Service, and Albertsons v. Kirkingburg) and the numbers of persons who can seek redress under the ADA, it should have come as no surprise to anyone following these cases that this Court would rule in favor of Toyota.
Business interests have dominated the Court’s interpretation of the ADA. National Chamber of Commerce Litigation Center called the Sutton decision “an incredibly significant victory for the business community.”
Business groups filing amicus curie briefs on Sutton, Murphy and Albertson’s urged the Court to consider “the impact its decision in this case may have beyond the immediate concerns of the parties to the case.” The National Association of Manufacturers asserted that “like sexual harassment last year, disability discrimination is the major employment law issue on the Supreme Court’s docket this year.”
The American Trucking Association and the Equal Employment Advisory Council (a nonprofit association made up of more than 315 major companies) joined the amicus brief. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Association called the Toyota decision “keeping the lid on ADA litigation.”
Many of us active in disability politics had hoped the ADA would revolutionize business practices as presently constituted under American capitalism. Albeit I did not hold my breath. The potential for transformation was pitted against powerful entrenched business class and the structure of our institutionalized for profit economy.
Business lobby resistance plus other Supreme Court prior ADA employment rulings, including the Sutton trilogy and Garrett v. Alabama, have thwarted the Act’s potential to ferry meaningful social change in employment for disabled persons. The courts, following Sutton, now disqualify people with diabetes, heart conditions, epilepsy, cancer and mental illness from pursuing ADA employment discrimination claims because their impairments can be mitigated with medications.
Caught in a viscous catch 22 workers with these conditions are “too functional” to be “disabled” yet can be fired for the “nondisabling” conditions.
And so it was with Williams. Williams duties included repetitive work with pneumatic tools which eventually caused pain in her hands, wrists, and arms. She was then diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and bilateral tendinitis.
Williams’ personal physician placed her on permanent work restrictions that precluded her from lifting more than 20 pounds or from frequently lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds, engaging in constant repetitive flexion or extension of [her] wrists or elbows, performing overhead work, or using vibratory or pneumatic tools.
Toyota, however, did not reasonably accommodate her. Toyota used up and then threw away Williams. Her condition worsened and she was eventually fired.
Onset of these conditions is regularly a cause for employer firings because employers fear the worker will be less productive and their medical conditions may run up health and other insurance costs amongst other reasons.
Yet in the ADA employment cases which have come before the Court, the justices have seen to it that employers have not lost the right to fire at will, to shed those workers held to be liabilities rather than assets to profit-making. Despite the ADA’s anti-discriminatory provisions, empirical data shows no improvement in the employment of disabled persons. Nine years after the Act’s employment provisions went into effect the unemployment rate still hovers at about 70%.
What was the Court’s reasoning in Toyota?
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the impairments substantially limited Williams in the major life activity of performing manual tasks at work, and granted she was disabled under the ADA. Toyota then took the case to the Supreme Court.
Scolding the Sixth Circuit O’Connor wrote “We conclude that the Court of Appeals did not apply the proper standard in making this determination because it analyzed only a limited class of manual tasks and failed to ask whether respondents impairments prevented or restricted her from performing tasks that are of central importance to most peoples daily lives.”
“…Because the manual tasks unique to any particular job are not necessarily important parts of most peoples lives occupation-specific tasks may have only limited relevance to the manual task inquiry,” she wrote.
What? Most people do work. Most people work at jobs that require them to perform certain tasks and the ability to perform such tasks is vital to putting food on the table for themselves and their families. Only a spoiled member of the ruling class could say that performing manual tasks one was specifically hired to perform is not of “central importance to most peoples daily lives.”
There is a vast difference in Williams’ position in the labor pool and O’Connor’s (or any other Justice).
Let’s speculate what would happen to O’Connor should she not be able to perform the manual task of writing or speaking or even reasoning (which is in doubt in this case) all a part of her work as a member of the Court.
An impaired O’Connor would have minions of clerks who can type, write, reason, and even speak for her as a matter of course. Further, O’Connor has her place on the Court until she resigns so she has no fear that any employer can take the food off her table.
Williams on the other hand has no personal assistants to do her bidding, to take the place of her body. Her job was not a cushy white collar job, it was built on the ability to perform a certain type of manual labor.
But the Court would have us ignore the impact of their pro business decision on the lives of the Ella Williams of the world. Everyone knows that it is better to stay with one’s employer rather than be fired and be forced to look for another job. Who is going to hire Williams now?
The Toyota decision points to a dangerous and undemocratic insulation where the justices – removed from the average worker’s plight – can dictate policy from the bench, unaccountable to Congress and unaccountable to the public.
I certainly believe that the intent of the reasonable accommodation provision in the ADA was to enable an employee like Williams to continue to work. Toyota had other jobs available which Williams could perform as stated in the facts of the case, yet it chose to do court battle instead.
What can we do? Boycott Toyota. Consider Toyota as a contender for one of the 10 worst corporations of Y2002. If it had provided Williams with an accommodation she would still have a job and the Supreme Court would not have had the chance to strike another death blow to the ADA.
Marta Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org www.disweb.org —