From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Repetitive Strain Injuries and the ADA, the Supreme Court Weighs In

Monday, April 16, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear cases to determine if a Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) can be classified as a disability holding employers responsible for “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Enacted July 26, 1990. The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. It also mandates the establishment of TDD/telephone relay services.

A qualified individual with a disability is a person who meets legitimate skill, experience, education, or other requirements of an employment position that s/he holds or seeks, and who can perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation.

Only injured workers who meet the ADA’s definition of an “individual with a disability” will be considered disabled under the ADA, regardless of whether they satisfy criteria for receiving benefits under workers’ compensation or other disability laws.

Work-related injuries do not always cause physical or mental impairments severe enough to “substantially limit” a major life activity. Also, many on-the-job injuries cause temporary impairments which heal within a short period of time with little or no long-term or permanent impact. Therefore, many injured workers who qualify for benefits under workers’ compensation or other disability benefits laws may not be
protected by the ADA. An employer must consider work-related injuries on a case-by-case basis to know if a worker is protected by the ADA.

The term “reasonable accommodation” may include:

  • making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities; and
  • job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of
    examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters, and other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

Presently RSIs are not considered disabilities under this law. Two court cases will review if RSIs can be classified as under the ADA. Two years ago, the Supreme Court sided with business in the first round of cases interpreting the law. It ruled that the law did not cover prospective workers who were rejected because of treatable diseases or bad eyesight. The justices described these as ordinary impairments that can be corrected and do not rise to the level of a true disability.

Opinions differ as to the repercussions of RSIs being considered disabilities. Some groups feel that if they are judged to be disabilities millions of US workers could see improved working conditions. On the other hand, corporate lawyers say the law should not cover workers whose injuries may prevent them from one kind of job, but not from another, fearing an onslaught of lawsuits if the ADA is read more broadly.

The cases that may decide this are Toyota v. Williams, 00-1089, and US Airways v. Barnett, 00-1250. Toyota v. Williams is scheduled to be heard October 2001.

Ella Williams went to work at Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, assembly plant in 1990 and was assigned to an assembly line that produced engines. Within months, she developed repetitive stress injuries in her wrists, neck and arms.

She sued under the ADA in 1993, and that case was settled. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Williams is disabled, and Toyota appealed to the Supreme Court. The judges concluded her injury was “analogous to having damaged or deformed limbs.” She returned to Toyota in December that year with a doctor’s instructions to perform only light duty.

The automaker asked the high court to resolve a division among federal appeals court over workers who can perform some but not all of their assigned duties.

Toyota said it tried to accommodate Williams who was moved to a different position. In 1996, Toyota told Williams that all quality inspectors must be able to do four different inspection jobs interchangeably. Williams said one of the new tasks caused pain and numbness in her arms, hands, shoulders and neck.

The two sides disagree over circumstances which led to the final outcome of Williams leaving Toyota.

The second case to be heard by the Supreme Court, US Airways v. Barnett, concerns former cargo handler Robert Barnett who sustained a back injury while working. Barnett asked to be reassigned to a position reserved for more senior employees. The company refused and Barnett sued under the ADA. The Supreme Court will rule, in this case, on what is reasonable accommodation.