Musings & Mandates From On High – The Reality

On January 15, 2002, the United States Supreme Court issued a pair of employment- related decisions arising from Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) claims — one which will hearten employers and one which will not.

The Heartening

In Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, a unanimous Court narrowed the definition of disability for ADA purposes where the employee claimed to have a physical impairment which substantially limits her major life activity of “performing manual tasks.” Seeking “disabled” status under the ADA to force the employer to provide a workplace accommodation, the employee claimed ADA protection due to carpal tunnel syndrome. Finding her disabled under the ADA, the Sixth Circuit held that the employee met her evidentiary burden by showing her carpal tunnel syndrome interfered with her ability to perform certain manual tasks at work.

In reversing the Sixth Circuit’s decision, the Supreme Court analyzed the burden of proof which would be necessary for a plaintiff to satisfy the ADA requirement of a substantial limitation in the specific major life activity of performing manual tasks. The Court found that “given [the] large potential differences in the severity and duration of the effects of carpal tunnel syndrome, an individual’s carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosis, on its own, does not indicate whether the individual has a disability within the meaning of the ADA.”

Further, the Supreme Court found that whether an impairment constitutes a disability cannot be determined by only analyzing the effect of the impairment in the workplace. The effects of the physical impairment on the types of manual tasks of central importance to people’s daily lives, e.g. tending to personal hygiene and carrying out personal or household chores, must also be examined. Therefore, reasoned the Supreme Court, if the carpal tunnel syndrome does not substantially limit the performance of normal and ordinary manual tasks outside the workplace, it will not qualify as a disability under ADA.

The Disheartening

In EEOC v. Waffle House, Inc., an employee had agreed in his application for employment to arbitrate “any dispute or claim” related to his employment. After beginning work as a grill operator, the employee suffered a seizure at work and was subsequently discharged. The employee failed to initiate arbitration proceedings, but did file a timely charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that his discharge violated the ADA.

In a split decision, the Supreme Court found that even though the arbitration agreement was enforceable as between the employer and the employee, the EEOC had a separate public interest right to independently pursue enforcement of victim-specific judicial relief (i.e. backpay, reinstatement and damages for the employee) despite the employees failure to initiate arbitration. Prior to this ruling, several federal circuit courts had ruled that although the EEOC had an independent statutory right to pursue injunctive relief to enjoin an employer from engaging in unlawful employment practices, it did not have the right to pursue monetary damages in behalf of the non-arbitrating employee.

Thus, it appears that such arbitration provisions in employment contracts have been rendered ineffective against federal discrimination claims brought under the statutory authority of the EEOC. However, as the Supreme Court noted in its decision, there remains an open question as to whether an employee’s settlement of a discrimination suit with the employer or an arbitration judgment would affect the validity of the EEOC’s claim or the character of the relief which the EEOC could seek.

The Reality

Despite the results of these decisions, employers should continue to take a moderate course of action. The Toyota decision did not determine that carpal tunnel syndrome was not a disability under the ADA. Rather, it raised the employee’s burden of proof by requiring a showing of substantial limitation in the performance of normal and ordinary manual tasks outside the workplace. Thus, before denying an employee’s claim of ADA disability based on carpal tunnel syndrome, the employer would be wise to make inquiry as to the effects of the carpal tunnel syndrome in the employee’s non-work life.

As to the Waffle House decision, its effect on arbitration provisions in employment contracts is minimized by the relatively few cases which the EEOC actually prosecutes on behalf of nongroup complainants. In addition, this decision specifically did not reach the questions of the EEOC’s right to independently pursue an employer if a settlement has been reached with the employee or an arbitration award has issued. Therefore, employers would be well advised to keep such arbitration provisions in place.