[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
GWEN IFILL: In a unanimous ruling the Supreme Court ruled today that an autoworker with carpal tunnel syndrome does not qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The decision overturned a lower court ruling that favored the assembly line worker.
For more on today’s ruling, we begin with “NewsHour” regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, legal affairs correspondent for the “Chicago Tribune.” Jan, welcome back.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thank you very much.
GWEN IFILL: Explain today’s court case today. This was about defining disability, wasn’t it?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. And as the court made clear today merely having a physical or mental impairment doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re disabled for the purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court looked at the definition as contained in the law. Under the ADA, a person is considered disabled if he has a… If his disability substantially limits a major life activity.
GWEN IFILL: Not just work but a major life activity.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: A major life activity. The regulations in the law define a major life activity as breathing, hearing, seeing, working or in this case performing manual tasks. So the Court really looked at that definition and reversed a lower court ruling that said… Had not issued quite a demanding enough standard to determine whether or not someone was, in fact, disabled.
GWEN IFILL: Tell us about the woman who brought this case and the case she brought to the Court today.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: She had been with Toyota since 1990, which incidentally was the year the ADA passed. She had worked on the assembly line for some time when she began having pain in her wrists and elbows. So, She asked to be moved to another job and ultimately sued Toyota saying it would not accommodate her.
That case settled. Toyota gave her another job and she did that work fine for some time and then Toyota gave her some additional responsibilities, including putting some oil on cars that she said exacerbated her condition. So she asked to be accommodated again. Toyota said no. She sued again and that’s the case that ultimately made its way up to the Supreme Court.
GWEN IFILL: This wasn’t even close. It was a unanimous ruling when we’re so used to seeing these 5-4 closely watched rulings of the Supreme Court.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right.
GWEN IFILL: Why was it so clear-cut for the court?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, many people I spoke with today said this did not come as a great surprise for them because it follows very closely from a 1999 ruling in a case involving United Airlines.
In that case the Court also looked at the definition of disability and there said that if your impairment could be corrected through eyeglasses or, you know, high blood pressure medication, then you wouldn’t be considered disabled under the Act because you would not again back to the definition have been substantially limited in a major life activity. So looking at that case, people weren’t surprised by the outcome today.
GWEN IFILL: So if this woman could garden or brush her teeth or do other daily tasks, then she should be able or willing to accept any other kinds of job, not just the kind of job she wanted?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Sure. Actually that’s what the Court got to today because the appeals court ruling, which it reversed, didn’t look at those tasks outside the work force. It just said Mrs. Williams is limited in these manual tasks on the job. Today the Court said, no, you’ve got to look beyond the work force.
When we think about a major life activity, that’s something that would be of central importance to a person’s life, so we’ve got to go beyond the job. Just because you may not be able to do a simple task on the job may not be of central importance to your life.
So we’ve got to look at our personal chores, our household chores, whether Mrs. Williams could brush her teeth or comb her hair or garden or play with her children or dance. All those things the Court said must come in to an inquiry on whether or not she was disabled. That’s now… She’s not necessarily out of the courtroom. Now the appeals court has to go back, rethink the issue, take a little broader approach.
GWEN IFILL: In Justice O’Connor’s opinion, in her writing on this, did it sound like she was criticizing the law itself, the ADA, or was she criticizing the application of the law?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: She just looked very closely at the language of the law. She said Congress intended for this law to be applied to a narrow group of people. She kept referring to the “substantially limits” and defined what that means that it severely restricts — the major life activity.
The opinion today very closely tracks the language of the law and what Congress intended. She mentioned that the law itself says, when Congress passed it in 1990, that it was designed to protect the some 43 million Americans who suffer from disabilities and just like the court said in 1999, if Congress had intended for all these other things to come in and be included, that would be a lot more people than 43 million.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Thanks a lot, Jan.