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News Release

U.S. Supreme Court Once Again Zeros In on ADA

Lambda Concerned That Critical Employee Protections Under the Americans With Disabilities Act Are at Stake

November 1, 2001

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

New York -- In the latest phase of an ongoing campaign to undo the Americans with Disabilities Act, hearings begin next week at the U.S. Supreme Court in a new round of legal attacks spearheaded by corporate employers, said Lambda Legal, a participant in the three upcoming cases. The corporate campaign against civil rights protections for people with disabilities has a new ally -- the Bush Administration.

Chevron, Toyota, and U.S. Airways want the Supreme Court to throw out important protections that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides to disabled employees. Chevron argues that it should be trusted when it says it is refusing to hire a disabled worker because it is looking out for his health. Toyota and U.S. Airways seek to avoid the accommodations the law currently requires them to make to allow employees with disabilities to continue working.

The three cases pit the corporate giants, supported by national pro-business associations, against disabled employees and their advocates. One key development in the latest phase of the campaign against the ADA is that, under the Bush Administration, the White House has switched sides. The Bush Administration has sided with Chevron and Toyota in their appeals (and has taken no position in the U.S. Airways case).

“These corporate giants are seeking legal giveaways on the backs of the disabled and at the expense of the nation’s best interests,” said Lambda AIDS Project Director Catherine A. Hanssens, an expert on ADA law and protections for people living with HIV and AIDS. “At a time when there is so much talk about homeland security, neither these corporations nor the Bush Administration seems to care about reasonable job security for Americans who have disabilities but can work,” Hanssens added.

On Monday, the Court agreed to hear Chevron Inc. v. Mario Echazabal. (No argument date has been set.) Chevron argues it can refuse to hire Echazabal, even though he can do the job, because Chevron says the job might hurt Echazabal’s health. Echazabal’s doctor says there is no risk, and Echazabal wants, and can do, the job.

“The ADA says that a person with a disability who is qualified for a job and doesn’t pose a threat to anybody else has the right to work,” said Hanssens. “Are we supposed to trust that Chevron is looking out for Mario Echazabal’s interest rather than evading the ADA?”

She added, “The ADA rejects paternalistic rules that have been used over and over again to exclude people with disabilities from jobs.”

The Court will hear argument on November 7 in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Ella Williams. Toyota is battling Williams, a former employee who developed carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis after working many years on one of the corporation’s assembly lines. When Williams could no longer raise her hands and arms above her head, Toyota initially complied with its legal obligations under the ADA and gave Williams tasks that she could do without pain, then switched gears and demanded that she do work that was impossible for her. When Williams could not comply, Toyota fired her.

Toyota takes the position that Williams is not disabled enough to be helped by the ADA, since she can still use her hands and arms for some purposes. At the same time, Toyota argues she is too disabled to keep her job. The case thus presents important legal questions about the definition of disability under the ADA.

Said Hanssens, “According to the Catch-22 created by Toyota, Ella Williams is damned either way. She’s disabled enough to be fired, but not disabled enough to be protected by the ADA.”

Hanssens noted that the same pro-business organizations have lined up to support both Chevron and Toyota in friend of the court briefs. “These corporate giants and their allies are rolling out every legal argument in the book,” said Hanssens. “Chevron says it wants to help people with disabilities, Toyota says it can’t employ them, but the bottom line is always to further weaken equal employment opportunity for the disabled,” she added.

Lambda is part of the legal team that submitted an amicus brief on behalf of a dozen disability rights organizations, including the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Toyota v. Williams. The brief was drafted by John Rich of Shea and Gardner in Washington, D.C.

The third case the Court will hear is U.S. Airways v. Barnett, to be argued on December 4. Here, Robert Barnett was fired after being refused accommodation for an injury. The airline argues that it could not reassign him unless he already had a seniority “right” to a vacant position.

“An employer does not have the right to create a giant loophole to the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirement simply by pointing to its own seniority policy,” said Hanssens, who assisted in a friend of the court brief filed by the Employment Law Center in San Francisco and Schneider, McCormac and Wallace in Barnett.

Lambda Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow added, “Whether masquerading as concerns about ‘risks to the worker’ or exaggerated worries about the cost of accommodation, these legal challenges reflect the stigma and irrational fears associated with disabilities, something people with HIV often confront. How the Court decides these cases will have a profound effect on people whose livelihoods depend on a fair chance to work.”

What: Oral argument in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Ella Williams
Where: United States Supreme Court, 1 First Street N.E., Washington D.C.
When: Wednesday, November 7
(Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Ella Williams, No. 00-1089)

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

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This article was provided by Lambda Legal. Visit Lambda Legal's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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