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On Jan. 8, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an employee with carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis was covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only if his or her conditions affected activities of daily living, not just the ability to perform the tasks of his or her particular job. Toyota Motor Mfg. Ky. Inc. v. Williams, 122 S. Ct. 681 (2002). Many commentators have suggested that this is the most recent example of the Court’s unduly restrictive interpretation of the ADA. It could be argued, however, that the Court fashioned a reasonable balance between the workplace rights and obligations of injured employees and their employers, and confirmed once again that not all medical conditions enjoy ADA protection, even though such conditions may be very serious. Ella Williams began working at Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky., manufacturing plant in August 1990. She was placed on an engine fabrication assembly line, where her duties included work with pneumatic tools. Use of these tools resulted in pain in her hands, wrists and arms. She eventually was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and bilateral tendonitis, and was placed on permanent work restrictions. Toyota assigned her to various modified-duty jobs, but Williams continued to miss work for medical leave. She filed a claim under the Kentucky Workers’ Compensation Act that was settled. After she returned to work, she became dissatisfied with Toyota’s efforts to accommodate her work restrictions, and filed an ADA claim in federal court. That suit also was settled, and Williams returned to work in December 1993. Upon her return, she was placed in the Quality Control Inspections Operation (QCIO), which involved four tasks: assembly paint, paint second inspection, shell body audit and a type of surface repair. For the first couple of years, Williams was only assigned the first two tasks, but in the fall of 1996, Toyota announced that it wanted all QCIO employees to rotate through all four of these processes. After she was assigned the shell body audit task, Williams began to experience pain in her neck and shoulders, and was diagnosed with myotendonitis bilateral periscapular, an inflammation of the muscles and tendons around both of her shoulder blades; myotendonitis and myositis bilateral forearms with nerve compression causing median nerve irritation; and thoracic outlet compression, a condition that causes pain in the nerves that lead to the upper extremities. She requested that she be allowed to return to work to perform only the original two tasks she was assigned in QCIO. It is unclear what happened next, but on Dec. 6, 1996, her last day of work, Williams was placed on a no-work-of-any-kind restriction by her treating physicians. She received a letter from Toyota on Jan. 27, 1997, terminating her employment for poor performance. THE FEDERAL CLAIM Williams filed an ADA claim against Toyota in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. The district court granted Toyota’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Williams was not covered by the ADA because her impairment did not substantially limit a major life activity. On appeal, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that Williams was disabled because her ailments prevented her from doing tasks associated with certain types of manual assembly line jobs, manual product-handling jobs and manual building trade jobs that require the gripping of tools and repetitive work with hands and arms extended at or above shoulder level for extended periods of time. Williams v. Toyota Motor Mfg. Ky. Inc., 224 F.3d 840, 843 (2000). The Supreme Court agreed to review the case. Toyota Motor Mfg. Ky. Inc. v. Williams, 532 U.S. 970 (2001). The Supreme Court began its analysis by examining the ADA’s pertinent definition of a disability: “a physical … impairment that substantially limits one or more … major life activities.” 42 U.S.C. 12102(2)(A). The regulations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provide that in determining whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity, the following factors should be considered: “the nature and severity of the impairment; … the duration or expected duration of the impairment; and … the permanent or long-term impact, or the expected permanent or long-term impact of or resulting from the impairment.” 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(j)(2). The EEOC’s regulations do not address what a plaintiff must demonstrate to establish a substantial limitation in the specific major life activity of performing manual tasks. The Court noted that the term “‘substantial’ … clearly precludes impairments that interfere in only a minor way with the performance of manual tasks from qualifying as disabilities.” 122 S. Ct. at 691. Moreover, “‘major life activities’ refers to those activities that are of central importance to daily life.” The Court reasoned that “to be substantially limited in performing manual tasks, an individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives. The impairment’s impact must also be permanent or long-term.” Id. An individualized assessment of the effect of an impairment is particularly necessary when the condition is one whose symptoms vary widely from person to person, as is the case with carpal tunnel syndrome. According to the Court, “the central inquiry must be whether the claimant is unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people’s daily lives, not whether the claimant is unable to perform the tasks associated with her specific job.” Id. at 693. The Supreme Court found that the 6th Circuit should not have focused narrowly on Williams’ inability to do the manual work in her assembly line job as sufficient proof that she was substantially limited in performing manual tasks. Instead, it held, the appellate court should have focused on other types of manual tasks of central importance to people’s daily lives, including personal hygiene and household chores. In this regard, the 6th Circuit actually had observed that Williams could tend to such chores as bathing and brushing her teeth. Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the 6th Circuit’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. A NARROW HOLDING It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not rule on whether Williams was disabled. Its ruling addressed only the issue of whether she was substantially limited in performing manual tasks at the time she sought an accommodation. The Court did not express any opinion on the other arguments Williams made to support her disability status in the case below, including her restrictions on working and lifting. The Court also did not hold that carpal tunnel syndrome, or other asserted repetitive stress injuries, may never be the basis for a valid ADA claim. The Court merely held that the 6th Circuit applied the wrong standard and ignored evidence relevant to the issue when deciding that Williams was disabled. The impact of the Toyotacase obviously does not provide a bright-line test for determining when a valid ADA claim has been made. Significant issues of judgment will remain. For example, employees will have to show that they are limited in more than just their ability to perform certain tasks required by their jobs in order to qualify for an accommodation. This will involve an inquiry into the employee’s ability to perform a variety of daily tasks. Courts will need to decide what proof of impairment in the performance of such tasks will be required, and how much impairment is sufficient to trigger the ADA’s protection. Critics have argued that the Court is applying an overly restrictive analysis of the ADA. One of the cases commonly cited to support this view is Sutton v. United Airlines Inc.,527 U.S. 471 (1999). In Sutton, a divided Court affirmed the dismissal of an ADA claim of two sisters with severe myopia who were denied employment by United Airlines because of their poor eyesight. With corrective lenses, each sister had vision that was 20/20 or better, but United required them to have uncorrected visual acuity of 20/100 or better. Writing for the Court, Justice O’Connor observed: “Looking at the Act as a whole, it is apparent that if a person is taking measures to correct for, or mitigate, a physical or mental impairment, the effects of those measures — both positive and negative — must be taken into account when judging whether that person is ‘substantially limited’ in a major life activity and thus ‘disabled’ under the Act.” Id. at 482. Because the plaintiffs had alleged that with corrective measures they “function identically to individuals without a similar impairment,” the Court agreed with the decisions below that they had not stated a claim that they were substantially limited in any major life activity. In a companion case decided on the same day, the Court held that a United Parcel Service driver whose employment was terminated due to high blood pressure was not covered by the ADA because with medication, his activities were not significantly restricted and he could function normally. Murphy v. United Parcel Service, 527 U.S. 516 (1999). Also on the same day, the Court held that a truck driver for a grocery store chain who had monocular vision could not state an ADA claim because he did not meet visual acuity standards of the Department of Transportation, even though he had received a waiver from those standards because of his clean driving record and agreement to have his vision checked annually. Albertson’s Inc. v. Kirkinburg, 527 U.S. 555 (1999). The ADA is one of the few federal employment statutes that not only prohibits discrimination, but also imposes an affirmative obligation on employers to accommodate qualified individuals with disabilities reasonably. Such an obligation may not only impose costly and onerous obligations on an employer, but in some cases it may also adversely affect the rights of co-workers. In such a situation, the Court should develop balanced standards that seek to protect fairly the often competing interests of injured or ill employees, their co-workers and their employers. The Toyotacase also cannot be assessed without considering the substantial overlap of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), which gives eligible employees with a “serious health condition” up to 12 workweeks of job-protected leave per year. 29 U.S.C. 2601 et seq. Thus, even if an employee with a condition like carpal tunnel syndrome is not protected by the ADA, he or she may be able to take time off under the FMLA and similar state laws to recuperate from the harmful effects of the condition. Moreover, if such a condition is work-related, the employee may have rights under state workers’ compensation laws. As new cases are decided, the standards articulated in Toyotawill more fully develop. Undoubtedly, there will continue to be controversy over the appropriate reach of the ADA, but this debate should ensure that the rights and obligations of employers and employees continue to be reasonably balanced. Michael L. Stevens is a partner in Washington, D.C.’s Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn, www.arentfox.com. He represents management in all types of labor and employment law matters.

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