U.S. Supreme Court narrows perimeters for disability suits

| Thursday, January 10, 2002

The U.S. Supreme Court has moved to make it more difficult for workers with repetitive-motion injuries to file for disability lawsuits. On Tuesday, the court sided unanimously with business groups in the case of a disabled worker.

According to reports, the ruling reverses an earlier decision that business groups said would have expanded the rights of workers to sue. Tuesday's unanimous decision narrows the scope of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, the landmark civil rights law.

In an earlier decision, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had concluded that Ella Williams was disabled because she was unable to perform her paint inspection job at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant in Lexington, KY. The case is Toyota v. Williams.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court, said that limitation isn't enough to render a person disabled. She told the lower court to review such factors as Williams' ability to do daily chores.

Reportedly, the justices said the federal appeals court was too quick to conclude that the former Toyota engine assembly-line worker was disabled and therefore eligible to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"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,'' O'Connor wrote.

The case centered on a type of injury that has become common among workers who repeatedly perform the same task. Statistics show almost two million U.S. employees suffer work-related musculoskeletal disorders, according to the U.S. Labor Department. About a third have conditions serious enough to require time off from work. Carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis are two of these afflictions.

The 1990 law requires employers to make accommodations so disabled workers can hold jobs. According to that law, workers are disabled if they have an impairment that "substantially limits one or more major life activities.''

The high court did not decide Williams wasn't disabled, but instead sent the case back to the lower courts for additional proceedings and possibly a trial.

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