From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

US Supreme Court Wonders if Musculoskeletal Disorders are a Disability

The case is Toyota v. Williams, No. 00-1089. On Wednesday, November 7, 2001, the Supreme Court weighed arguments on what constitutes a disability, and how far does the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) reach.

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.

In this case, 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.

A federal district judge dismissed Williams’s suit in 1997. But a Cincinnati-based federal appeals court sided with Williams, holding that her inability to perform manual tasks on the assembly line constituted a disability under ADA. Toyota appealed to the Supreme Court.

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.

Toyota is backed by the Bush administration, several businesses, and the Chamber of Commerce. Williams has seen support from the AFL-CIO, the National Council on Disability, and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America

On the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, Williams stated that she, “meets the definition of disabled and should have been allowed to remain a paint inspector”. John G. Roberts Jr., representing Toyota, stated, “[Williams] can do a broad range of everyday manual tasks and that it’s really only these work related tasks that present a problem, and that’s not enough to show disabled status.”

Inside the courtroom the Justices seemed a bit perplexed as how to further define a disability. Addressing Roberts, Justice O’Connor asked, “Do we look at the things a person can’t do, or the things she can, or both?”

In response, Roberts said, “It’s clear Mrs. Williams can brush her teeth, can cook and do laundry, and just because she can’t do assembly line work doesn’t mean she is disabled.”

To Roberts, Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked if an acceptable solution would be to allow a jury to find whether a person has a substantial disability.

Representing Williams, attorney Robert L. Rosenbaum countered that the disability law was targeted at keeping people like Williams in the workforce. If the law were only to apply to people too disabled to work, it would make no sense.

Justice Scalia said, “The trouble, of course, is how do we define what a substantial disability is: lost a thumb, lost an arm. Congress clearly did not think it was covering half of the population. It thought it was covering a discreet group of people, the handicapped, who had been -how shall I put it-been held in disfavor.”

O’Connor mused that the ADA was not meant to replace workmans’ compensation, but geared towards helping those who were, for example, wheelchair bound.

In response, Rosenbaum stated that, “at the time congress passed the law it was expected that 17% of the population would be covered and that number was expected to increase.”

A decision is expected in July.