Supreme Court to Decide Reach of Disability Law

Author Subject: Supreme Court to Decide Reach of Disability Law
John C Posted At 13:23:06 04/17/2001
Supreme Court to Decide Reach of Disability Law
April 16, 2001 2:40 pm EST
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it will decide whether repetitive strain injuries, which afflict an estimated 1 million U.S. workers, constitute an impairment under a federal law barring discrimination against disabled workers.

Taking up the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the high court agreed to decide how carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive strain injury that causes pain in the wrists and hands, should be handled under the law.

In another case, the court will decide if the law required an employer to reassign a disabled employee to a different position as a reasonable accommodation, even if another worker should get the position under the company's seniority system.

Acting on separate appeals by Toyota Motor Corp. and US Airways Group Inc., the justices will hear arguments in the two cases and then issue rulings during their term that starts in October.

In the first case, the justices will decide whether an impairment preventing an individual from performing only a limited number of tasks associated with a specific job qualified as a disability.


The case involved Ella Williams, who worked on an assembly line at a Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. She developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrists and tendinitis in her hands and arms soon after beginning work at the plant in 1990.

She was transferred to another job inspecting cars, which eased the problem. But her work duties later were expanded to include another job in the paint inspection section requiring her to wipe down passing cars at a rate of one car per minute.

Her problems reappeared, along with tendinitis in her shoulders and neck. Williams asked to be reassigned to her former job in the paint inspection section. When Toyota refused to take away the expanded duties, she sued.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that her physical difficulties in using her hands, arms and shoulders did not constitute a disability.

But a U.S. appeals court disagreed, saying her inability to perform certain manual tasks brought her within the law's coverage. It said her impairment was sufficiently severe to be similar to deformed limbs.

John Roberts, an attorney representing Toyota, said the case involved an exceptionally important question to employers because repetitive motion injuries have become increasingly widespread among American workers.

"The extent to which employers must offer costly accommodations to this rapidly growing segment of the work force will assume critical importance," he said in the appeal.

The other case involved Robert Barnett, who injured his back in 1990 while working in a cargo position for US Airways in San Francisco.

When he returned, Barnett found he could no longer handle cargo and he used his seniority to transfer into the company's mail room. But then two employees with greater seniority sought to transfer into the mail room, and Barnett was limited to transferring to jobs in the cargo area.

Barnett proposed that the airline provide him with special lifting equipment or that the cargo job be restructured so that he could only do warehouse office work. Those requests were denied.

Barnett argued US Airways violated the disabilities law by failing to reassign him to the mail room, by failing to provide other reasonable accommodations and by failing to engage in the "interactive process" to identify reasonable accommodations.

If the US supreme Court rules this is not a work related injury or disability, we will all be the losers. Please follow this important case closely

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