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Community and Internet Resources

Legislation: Court Decisions

Supreme Court Decisions

June 2002 - Punitive damages cannot be sought against federally funded entities under ADA

Supreme Court of the United States has again ruled against an individual with a disability that has sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A paraplegic man injured while transported to jail brought the case against Kansas City. A jury had originally awarded the man $1 million for lost income and medical expenses and an additional $1.2 million in punitive damages. "Punitive damages are not compensation for injury, but, instead, are private fines levied by civil juries to punish reprehensible conduct and to deter its future occurrence." While Kansas City accepted the $1 million award they appealed the $1.2 million punitive award. In favor of Kansas City, the high court ruled that federally funded boards and agencies cannot be sued for punitive damages and can only be held responsible to pay actual damages and to make necessary accommodations. Many disability advocates find it disheartening that the recent trend of the court is to rule against people with disabilities, thereby limiting the protection afforded under the ADA.

June 2002 - Supreme Court rules that people with disabilities may be denied "risky" jobs

Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on the case Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Echazabal, No. 00-1406. The suit, citing violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was brought against Chevron by Mario Echazabal, who as a job applicant was refused a refinery position after a physical exam revealed a chronic liver disease that could be aggravated by the chemicals in the refinery. The federal appeals court in San Francisco, which found that "disabled persons should be afforded the opportunity to decide for themselves what risks to undertake," initially ruled upon the suit. Chevron had appealed this decision, stating that such a ruling would endanger employers of being held legally liable for aggravated injuries relating to preexisting conditions.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday, June 10, 2002 that employers could deny a job to applicants with disabilities that face serious health or safety risks. According to Justice David Souter, "a regulation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) authorizes refusal to hire an individual because his performance on the job would endanger his own health owing to a disability." The Supreme Court interpreted that the ADA permits the regulation by the EEOC. This ruling follows others that have also ruled against employees with disabilities.

April 29, 2002 - Supreme Court further narrows the scope of the ADA

Supreme Court of the United States has again ruled against an employee with a disability in the case US Airways vs. Barnett, No. 00-1250. The final ruling of 5-4 was in favor of US Airways, sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act by Barnett in 1994 after losing his mailroom position to a more senior employee after massive layoffs. The Justices stated that that the Americans with Disabilities Act, the law that calls for "reasonable accommodations" in the workplace for people with disabilities, should not override seniority systems in most cases. Those who voted in favor of US Airways however, did clarify their ruling by stating that there may be circumstances in which a disabled employee can prevail if they can prove that the Seniority System is not actively enforced. This decision follows a string of similar rulings that have narrowed the scope of the law and therefore have limited the protections afforded to employees with disabilities under the ADA.

January 2002 -Reach of Americans with Disabilities Act limited by Supreme Court Justices

Supreme Court of the United States announced a unanimous decision, that one will be considered disabled under the ADA only if the disability is "of central importance" to the individual's daily lives and not for people with routine limitations or minor, impermanent injuries. This ruling, significantly narrowing the definition of disability, will prevent many people with acquired disabilities from finding protection under the nearly 12 year old act. In addition to limiting the employment provision of the law, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor also said the definition applied to the provisions dealing with public transportation and public accommodations for people with disabilities. This decision was made in deliberation of a case brought against Toyota Motor Corp. by Ella Williams. In the suit, Williams argues that Toyota did not allow a transfer after she found that a repetitive stress injury to her wrists and shoulders was aggravated by one aspect of the assembly line position that was provided as accommodation to the injury. This decision, which was supported by the Bush Administration, has set a precedent on which many future cases will be based.

May 29, 2001 - Supreme Court rules in favor of professional golfer with circulatory disorder using a cart in the PGA

The United States Supreme Court ruled with a 7-2 decision, on Tuesday, May 29, 2001, that Casey Martin may use a motorized cart during the Professional Golfers Association tour and further that the tour must waive its requirement for players to walk the course. Martin's battle began in 1997 when he sued the PGA, citing that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) granted him the right to use a motorized cart throughout the tour. This decision upheld a previous lower court ruling made in March of 2000 claiming in contrast to the tour, that walking the course was not a fundamental part of the game and that riding in a motorized cart would not give Martin a significant advantage over other golfers. The ruling has spurred concern over the implications on professional golf, in that, many golfers with undefined disabilities may feel inclined to also apply for the use of a cart. Still, the ruling has implied, in line with the ADA, that as long as the use of adaptive technology does not fundamentally alter the nature of the activity, an individual must not be refused its use. This ruling certainly could be the precedent that sets forth a wave of similar rulings supporting all Americans with disabilities.

October 11, 2000 - Supreme Court Hears Case With Large Implications for the Americans With Disabilities Act

On October 11, 2000 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of University of Alabama v. Garrett. The main issue that the court must consider is whether the 11th Amendment, which prevents the judicial branch from being used to sue individual states, prohibits lawsuits filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If the Supreme Court finds in favor of University of Alabama, states would have little motivation for enforcing the ADA because they could not be punished for non-compliance. The ADA would lose much of its power to compel states to provide services for the disabled. A ruling in this case is expected sometime in the summer.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, February 21, 2001, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that suits in federal court by state employees to recover money damages under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. However, on September 11, 2003, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that individuals can sue a state agency for money damages under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Americans with Disability Act (ADA) Settlements and Consent Agreements

The U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division page lists a sampling of ADA settlements and consent agreements that have been concluded since late 1995. To learn more about past critical decisions that could impact you, click on the link above.

Supreme Court Decisions Interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a publication of the National Council on Disability (NCD), provides a summary of the Supreme Court's decisions through its 2000 term involving the ADA and the significant implications of these decisions. It is intended to increase public awareness of the ADA as interpreted by the Supreme Court and to give policymakers and ADA stakeholders an overview of ADA issues addressed by the Court, a synopsis of the decisions, and the significant implications of each decision in helping or hindering the implementation of ADA. Finally, the paper is intended to assist in the examination of the work that remains to be done to realize the law's promise. The full report is available on the NCD website. If you would like to contact NCD, you may call (202) 272-2004 (Voice) or (202) 272-2074 (TTY).

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