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In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court issued three pro-employer decisions under the Americans with Disabilities Act and ruled for employers with its first-ever opinion interpreting the Family and Medical Leave Act. While the rulings continue a pro-employer trend in the courts, especially under the ADA, each of the Court’s decisions in some manner highlights the need for individualized, case-by-case determinations. That means at least some of the uncertainty that has vexed employers working to comply with federal employment laws will continue for the foreseeable future. Toyota Motor Mfg. Ky. Inc. v. Williams. In this 2002 case, the Supreme Court considered whether the plaintiff production worker’s carpal tunnel syndrome “substantially limited” any “major life activities.” The plaintiff alleged that her condition prevented her from performing certain of her production line duties and also limited her in activities, such as housework, playing with children and gardening, according to the opinion. Ruling for the plaintiff, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that her inability to perform a certain class of manual tasks at work rendered her “substantially limited” in the major life activity of working. The high court unanimously reversed. While acknowledging that performing manual tasks is a major life activity under the ADA, the Court held that the test is whether a 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.” Accordingly, the Court ruled that the 6th Circuit erred by focusing on the plaintiff’s occupation-specific limitations and by disregarding evidence concerning her ability to engage in everyday activities, such as tending to her personal hygiene and engaging in personal or household chores. Williamsdoes not mean that carpal tunnel and similar conditions never can be ADA-protected disabilities. To be covered under the ADA, however, an impairment must do more than merely hinder an employee’s ability to perform a job. The impairment must significantly restrict an individual’s ability to perform central, everyday tasks — at least if the claimed major life activity is performing manual tasks. U.S. Airways Inc. v. Barnett. As alleged, the plaintiff injured his back while working as a non-union baggage handler at U.S. Airways, according to the opinion. He invoked seniority rights to transfer to a position in the mailroom. When jobs in the mailroom became open to seniority-based bidding, the plaintiff asked his employer to create an exception to the seniority system to allow him to remain in his current position. U.S. Airways said no. The plaintiff ultimately lost his assignment and was terminated, according to the opinion. Ruling for the airline, the Supreme Court held this year that, in general, a requested accommodation that conflicts with a seniority system is not a “reasonable” accommodation as a matter of law. Employers need not engage in a case-by-case analysis of whether seniority should prevail over a proposed accommodation — in the “run of cases,” it does. However, “special circumstances” could require an employer to deviate from seniority, the Court said. For example, if the employer reserves the right to change a seniority system and has exercised that right “fairly frequently,” or if the system already has so many exceptions that the employee can show one more exception won’t make a difference, then an exception might be required under the ADA. Although the Court held that employers need not reassess seniority systems on a “case-by-case” basis every time an accommodation is requested, an employer still must evaluate whether the employee will be able to show “special circumstances” such that an exception (or another exception) to the seniority-based system is required. Thus, once any accommodation request is made, it should be considered and discussed with the employee, no matter how unreasonable or implausible the request may seem on its face. A MAJOR VICTORY Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Echazabal. In Chevron, another 2002 case, the plaintiff worked for independent contractors at a Chevron refinery. He applied for regular employment with Chevron but allegedly was rejected because post-offer medical exams showed he had Hepatitis C, according to the opinion. In the opinion of the plaintiff’s doctors, this condition would be aggravated by continued exposure to toxins at the refinery. Chevron ultimately requested that the independent contractor reassign the plaintiff or remove him from the refinery altogether. When the contractor thereafter laid him off, the plaintiff sued. Chevron won summary judgment at the district court, relying on an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulation, 29 CFR § 1630.15 (b)(q), permitting the defense that a worker’s disability on the job would pose a “direct threat” to his own health. A unanimous Supreme Court agreed, holding that the EEOC’s regulation properly authorized an employer to deny employment to an individual whose job performance would endanger his own health. The Court opined that the threat-to-others provision is a non-exclusive example of qualifications that are lawfully “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” It also noted that the EEOC regulation helps employers avoid the risk of violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. While employers concerned about wrongful-injury claims and workers’ compensation costs can take heart from Chevron, any employment action based on risk to the employee’s own health or safety still must meet all the direct threat considerations. Ragsdale v. Wolverine Worldwide Inc.In its first decision interpreting the FMLA since it went into effect in 1993, the Supreme Court delivered a major victory for employers by striking a U.S. Department of Labor regulation, 29 CFR § 825.700 (a) as contrary to the statute. In Ragsdale(2002), the DOL regulation provided that companies must designate employee leave in writing as FMLA-qualifying or face the penalty of providing more FMLA leave, regardless of whether the employee can show harm or prejudice resulting from the employer’s failure to designate. The Court held that the regulation “is contrary to the Act,” which provides only an entitlement up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave. Additionally, the regulation improperly relieves employees of the burden of proving any real impairment of their rights and resulting prejudice. While this ruling is a big win for employers, as a practical matter, employers should continue to provide written designation of leave as FMLA-qualifying to avoid challenges by employees who claim they were prejudiced by the failure to designate. Further, in situations where an employer fails to designate FMLA leave, an assessment of whether that failure to notify could conceivably prejudice the employee should be made prior to taking an adverse action against the employee (such as termination). Mark J. Oberti is an associate of Seyfarth Shaw, (www.seyfarth.com), in Houston.

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