NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

High Court Narrows Scope of Disabilities Act

June 18, 2002

The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down four decisions this year narrowing the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court has taken upon itself the task of clarifying the act -- which is widely seen as notoriously vague and ambiguous.

Three of the decisions have been hailed as victories for the business community.

  • In Toyota v. Williams, the court held that a worker whose carpal tunnel syndrome prevented her from performing a factory job was not necessarily disabled under the ADA unless she could show that the condition also kept her from performing tasks "of central importance to most people's daily lives."
  • Advocates had hoped to broaden the definition of disabled on the theory that the more people who could be thus classified, the more secure its political future would be.
  • In U.S. Airways v. Barnett, the court found that the law generally does not entitle disabled workers to insist that workplace seniority systems be set aside to accommodate them with a suitable jobs.
  • In Chevron v. Echazabal, it ruled that the law does not compel a company to place a disabled worker in a job it reasonably believes will jeopardize his safety or health.

A fourth case involved municipalities, with the justices ruling that they could not be hit for punitive damages under the ADA.

Congress has been accused of deliberately writing the law vaguely so it could take credit for sweeping legislation -- while leaving the courts to clean up the mess and take the heat.

Source: Walter K. Olson (Manhattan Institute), "Supreme Court Rescues ADA From Its Zealots," Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2002.


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