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Supreme Court Decisions Could Limit ADA Protections

By Ron Honberg

The U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions in its recently completed term narrowing the definition of "disability" contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Sutton v. United Air Lines, No. 97-1943 and Murphy v. United Parcel Service, No. 97-1992. These decisions could serve to limit the ability of people with mental illnesses to assert the protections of this landmark civil rights law, particularly in employment discrimination cases.

In both cases, the Court addressed the question of whether it is permissible to consider the corrective effects of measures used to treat specific conditions when making a determination of disability under Title I of the ADA. In Sutton, two petitioners with severe myopia argued that the determination of whether they meet the definition of disability, and are therefore protected by the ADA, should be made without considering the corrective effects of their eyeglasses. In Murphy, the petitioner similarly asserted that the corrective effects of the medication he was taking to control his high blood pressure. should not be considered. The Court concluded that if corrective measures taken by an individual effectively mitigate his or her condition, then the protections of Title I cannot be asserted.

The regulations implementing Title I specify that an individual alleging a disability must prove the existence of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.12 The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), federal agencies responsible for enforcing specific sections of the ADA, have stated that the determination of whether a person has a disability which substantially limits one or more major life activities should be made without regard to "mitigating measures" such as medications or corrective devices. The Supreme Court's decisions in Sutton and Murphy effectively repudiate this guidance.

As a general principle, the Supreme Court grants deference to regulations written by federal agencies charged by statute with promulgating such regulations.13 However, the ADA's definition of disability lies in a "generally applicable" section of the statute, falling outside of the major Titles I-V of the law.14 The Court concluded that since no federal agency was given authority to issue regulations implementing the "generally applicable" section, it was not obligated to grant deference to regulations or guidelines issued by the EEOC, DOJ, or any other agency with responsibility for overseeing enforcement of specific sections of the ADA.

The Sutton Court interpreted the "plain meaning" of the ADA in determining that the effects of corrective measures -both positive and negative - should be taken into account when judging whether a person is "substantially limited" in a major life activity and thus "disabled" within the meaning of the law. The Court found particularly convincing the language in the statute stating that "43,000,000 Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities." Drawing upon several reports prepared by the National Council on Disability, the Court concluded that this figure reflects the intent of the ADA's drafters that the protections of the law should apply only to individuals whose impairments result in current functional limitations.15 By contrast, the Court held that individuals whose conditions are stabilized through corrective measures (e.g. medications) do not satisfy this requirement.16

Though none of the petitioners suffered from a mental disability, the rulings in Sutton and Murphy could prove to be particularly problematic for people with mental illnesses or other conditions which are episodic in nature and characterized by frequent fluctuations in severity of symptoms. For example, an individual with bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness) who takes lithium to stabilize his or her condition may not be able to meet the significantly narrowed standard of disability in Title I. This approach would unjustly disregard the fact that lithium controls - but does not cure - the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

The Court's decisions should not be construed as an absolute bar to filing discrimination complaints under Title I for individuals whose medications or correctable measures alleviate the symptoms of their impairments. The ADA and its implementing guidelines and regulations define "major life activities" broadly, including learning, thinking, concentrating, interacting with others, caring for oneself, speaking, performing manual tasks, sleeping, or working.17 Therefore, an individual who, with medication, is able to function effectively in the workplace, may still be substantially limited in another major life activity. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court's decision could create a "catch 22" for persons with mental illnesses. Under this ruling, persons who are frequently viewed by courts as too disabled to work may now be determined in some cases to be not disabled enough to be covered by the ADA.


12 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(g)(i)
13 Olmstead v. L.C., 98-536, at 5 ("Because the Department is the agency directed by Congress to issue regulations implementing Title II, … its views warrant respect").
14 42 U.S.C. 12102(2)
15 National Council on Disability, "Toward Independence (1986); National Council on Disability, "On the Threshold of Independence" (1988).
16 Sutton v. United Air Lines, 97-1943 (1999).
17 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(i); see also, EEOC, Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities, 5.


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