This article will explore two recent United States Supreme Court opinions, with the hope that, by the end of the article, the reader will have a better idea as to what the cases stand for and their significance to his or her practice.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams
The first case is Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams (hereafter, "Toyota Motor").1 In Toyota Motor, the plaintiff, Williams, was placed on an engine fabrication assembly line.2 Use of the tools required in this position eventually caused pain in Williams’ hands, wrists and arms.3 After seeking help through the company’s in-house medical staff, she was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and bilateral tendonitis.4 Eventually, Williams filed a workers’ compensation suit and an ADA suit against the company.5 Both of these suits were settled and she returned to work.6
Upon her return, the plaintiff was placed on a quality control inspection operations (QCIO) team.7 Personnel on this team had to perform any of four tasks, including assembly paint, paint second inspection, shell body audit, and ED surface repair.8 When the plaintiff was originally placed on the QCIO team, she was only responsible for assembly paint and paint second inspection.9 She performed both of these tasks satisfactorily.10
During the fall of 1996, the plant announced that all members of the QCIO team had to rotate through all four QCIO tasks.11 Since the shell body audit job required the plaintiff to hold her hands and arms near shoulder height for several hours at a time, her medical conditions became much worse.12 She again sought care through Toyota’s in-house medical staff, where they diagnosed her with myotendonitis bilateral perscapular, which is an inflammation of the muscles and tendons around the shoulder blades; myotendinitis and myositis bilateral forearms with nerve compression causing median nerve irritation; and thoracic outlet compression, a condition causing pain in the nerves leading to the upper extremities.13 The plaintiff asked to return to the QCIO team and to focus only on assembly paint and paint second inspection, her original QCIO placement which she had performed satisfactorily.14 When that did not transpire, the plaintiff filed a claim with the EEOC. Then, after receiving her right to sue letter, she filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.15
Once a claim was filed in federal court, Williams eventually alleged state law violations as well as violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the ADA.16 The District Court granted summary judgment to Toyota and the plaintiff appealed.17 The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment ruling vis a vis the ADA, but affirmed the ruling with respect to the FMLA and wrongful termination claims.18 Toyota appealed to the United States Supreme Court.19
Two issues faced the Court. First, what is a major life activity under the ADA? Regulations implementing the Rehabilitation Act, and for that matter the ADA, do not have a definition of what constitutes a major life activity. Rather, in the regulations, one simply finds laundry lists of various conditions. 20 In formulating a standard for what constitutes a major life activity, the Court referred to Webster’s Dictionary. Webster’s defines "major" in terms of importance.21 From this, the Court held that major life activities are to those activities of central importance to a person’s daily life.22
The question of what constitutes a major life activity did not end the Court’s inquiry, however. The second issue that faced the Court was the question of when a person is "substantially limited" in his or her major life activity under the ADA. In formulating the standard for determining when a substantial limitation exists, the Court found that the ADA preamble, which states there are 43 million people with disabilities, necessitated a demanding standard.23 Accordingly, the Court held that a person is substantially limited in a major life activity if the impairment prevents or severely restricts the individual from engaging in activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.24 Further, citing federal regulations, the Court also said held that the impairment must be permanent or long-term.25
Finally, the question arises as to whether substantial limitation is a determination focused solely on the impairment, or whether the job the plaintiff holds or desires enters into the equation. The Court made it very clear that working is a separate area of ADA jurisprudence, and should not be foisted onto the ADA in general.26 Accordingly, the Court declared that in determining whether an individual is substantially limited, the focus must be on the whether the plaintiff is unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people’s daily lives, and not on whether the claimant is unable to perform the tasks associated with her specific job.27
Thoughts for the Practitioner or Jurist
What can the practitioner or jurist take away from Toyota Motor? First, major life activity now has a definition that is no longer amorphous. That is, the practitioner is not confined by having to fit a diagnosis into a laundry list. Second, substantially limited in a major life activity vis a vis the ADA now has a different meaning than what the ADA statute would suggest on its face. Simply put, it is hard to understand how "substantially limited" can mean the same thing as "prevents or severely restricts." Third, the Court has now made it clear, by divorcing substantial limitation analysis from a person’s job, that the question of whether a person has a disability under the ADA is completely separate from the question of whether a person is otherwise qualified. Fourth, the Court is clearly willing to go its own way when it comes to definitional issues under the ADA, rather than relying on regulations, particularly those of the EEOC.28 Fifth, the major life activity of working is a separate area of ADA jurisprudence and should remain that way. Sixth, one wonders if the Supreme Court’s interpretation of substantially limiting in terms of "prevents or severely restricts" will make it harder for defendants to obtain summary judgment. That is, a reasonable prudent person (i.e., a judge in this case) could certainly determine as a matter of law the existence of an activity central to daily life.29 However, such a reasonable prudent person will have a much harder time determining what is inherently a fact-based question (whether a disability prevents or severely restricts a person from performing activities central to daily life) as a matter of law.30 Of course, a fact-based question is not the same as a question of fact, but one has to wonder if the Supreme Court’s opinion does not lead in that direction.
Finally, Toyota Motor certainly brings clearer parameters to key definitional issues under the ADA. However, regardless of whether or not you agree with those parameters, there is one aspect of the decision that is an unmitigated disaster for plaintiff lawyers and a corresponding boon for defense lawyers. Interestingly enough, it is not the decision per se that is the disaster; rather, it is the decision in combination with other U.S. Supreme Court decisions that results in the catastrophe, at least from the plaintiff’s perspective. In what is commonly called the Sutton trilogy of cases, the Supreme Court held that, in determining whether a person has a disability, mitigating measures (prosthetic devices, medicines, internal body compensation, etc) must be taken into account.31 The problem becomes obvious: If a mitigating measure is being effective, then by definition such an individual is probably not prevented or severely restricted in an activity of central importance to most people’s daily lives. The combination of decisions that led to this result is most unfortunate, because one has to wonder as a matter of social policy whether a person with a disability should be discouraged from using mitigating measures to compensate for that disability.
P.G.A. Tour, Inc. v. Martin
The second case this article explores is PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin (hereafter, "PGA Tour").32 As most people know, this case involves Casey Martin, a teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford. Martin is an extremely talented golfer.33 As an amateur, he won 17 Oregon Golf Association junior events before he was 15, and won the Oregon state championship as a senior.34 He then played on the Stanford golf team that won the NCAA championship in 1994.35 As a professional, Martin qualified for the Nike Tour and did well enough on that tour to qualify for the PGA Tour in 2000.36 In the 1999 season on the Nike Tour, Martin entered 24 events, made the cut 13 times, and finished in the top ten six times.37
Martin was born with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a degenerative circulatory disorder that obstructs the flow of blood from his right leg back to his heart.38 The disease is progressive and causes severe pain.39 It also has made his right leg fairly useless.40 The disease became a problem during the latter stages of his college career, to the point where walking an 18-hole golf course would cause him pain, fatigue and anxiety, and created a significant risk of Martin hemorrhaging, developing blood clots, and fracturing his tibia so severely that amputation might have resulted.41 Thus, Martin petitioned the Pac 10 Conference and the NCAA for a waiver of the rules requiring players to walk and carry their own clubs. Those requests were granted.42
To get on the Nike Tour, a golfer goes through "Q", or qualifying school.43 The Q consists of three rounds.44 During the first two rounds of the Q school, golf carts are permitted.45 However, golf carts are not permitted in the third round.46 Martin successfully completed the first two rounds during Q, but was denied the right to use a cart in the third round.47 He successfully brought suit for the right to use a cart in the third round and qualified for the Nike Tour.48
Finally, it must be noted that various golf governing bodies allow cart usage at any time. These include the United States Golf Association, the Ladies Professional Golf Association, and the Senior’s Men and Women Professional Golf Association Tours.49
Two issues faced the Court in PGA Tour. First, was the PGA Tour a place of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA? The Court held that the PGA Tour was a place of public accommodation for two reasons: 1) golf courses are explicitly mentioned in Title III of the ADA as a place of public accommodation;50 and 2) the PGA Tour is a lessor (the players pay a fee to the PGA) and operator of golf courses, and therefore must not discriminate against any player in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of those courses.51
Since the Court ruled that the PGA Tour is a place of public accommodation under the ADA, the PGA had to accommodate Martin unless to do so would fundamentally alter the nature of the activity.52 Thus, the second issue before the court was whether providing a cart to Martin would fundamentally alter the nature of the event. The Court held that providing a cart would not fundamentally alter the nature of the event because the fundamental nature of golf is shot making.53
Thoughts for the Practitioner or Jurist
Outside of the fact that this case stands for the proposition that the ADA — as I have postulated in my writings for several years54 — applies to professional sports, this case has other significance as well. In adopting its conclusion, the Supreme Court essentially adopted otherwise qualified analysis into Title III matters. In essence, the Supreme Court followed otherwise qualified analysis by attacking the case with the following questions: 1) Did Martin have a disability?; 2) Did Martin have the requisite skills, experience and qualifications to participate in PGA events?; and 3) Could Martin perform the essential functions of the job, professional golfer, with or without reasonable accommodation?
Much has been made of both the Toyota Motor case and the Casey Martin case. At first blush, the Toyota Motor case appears to be a disaster from the plaintiff’s perspective. This author submits that, for the most part, the Toyota Motor case — whether or not you agree with the standards posited by the Court — adds much-needed clarity to some key definitional issues. While the decision will make it extremely difficult for a person with a disability who uses mitigating measures to be protected under the ADA, the decision is not a complete loss for the person with a disability. For example, the Supreme Court’s focus on "severely restricts or prevents" as the key to determining whether a substantial limitation on a major life activity exists, may have the paradoxical effect of creating more factual issues, thereby making it harder for a defendant to obtain summary judgment.55
With respect to the decision involving Casey Martin, the decision applies the ADA to professional sports. However, there is no need for anyone to get hysterical over this, because the decision applies only to an athlete who can be accommodated without fundamentally altering the nature of the activity.56 The Casey Martin case may be even more significant for the approach it takes in resolving the issue of whether Martin was otherwise qualified.
It is my hope that I have made these two very significant cases understandable, and that I have demystified the decisions. Finally, I hope I have given the practitioner or jurist some thoughts that they may not come too mind immediately when reading these cases.
1 Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 122 S.Ct. 681, 70 U.S.L.W. 4050, 12 A.D. Cases 993 (2002).
2 Id. at p.686.
10 Id. at p. 687
17 Id. at pp. 687-88
18 Id. at p. 688
19 Id. at p. 689
20 See, id. at p. 690
21 Id. at p. 691
26 Id. at pp. 692-93
27 Id. at p. 693
28 See, id. at pp. 689-91
29 Bristol v. Board of County Commissioners of the County of Clear Creek, no. 00-1053, 2000 WL 265824, *9 (10th Cir. Feb. 26, 2002)
31 See, Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 U.S. 471, 119 S.Ct. 2139, 144 L.Ed.2d 450 (1999); Murphy v. United Parcel Service, 527 U.S. 516, 119 S.Ct. 2133, 144 L.Ed.2d 484 (1999); Albertson’s, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, 527 U.S. 555, 119 S.Ct. 2162, 144 L.Ed.2d 518 (1999).
32 PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661, 121 S.Ct. 1879, 149 L.Ed.2d 904 (2001).
33 Id. at p. 1885.
41 Id. at pp. 1885-1886.
42 Id. at p. 1886.
43 Id. at p. 1884.
44 Id. at pp. 1884, 1886.
45 Id. at pp. 1884, 1886.
46 Id. at pp. 1884, 1886.
47 Id. at p. 1886.
48 Id. at pp. 1885-86.
49 Id. at pp. 1884-1885.
50 Id. at p. 1890.
52 Id. at p. 1893.
53 Id. at pp. 1893-1896.
54 Eg. William D. Goren, Understanding the Americans With Disabilities Act: An Overview for Lawyers (American Bar Association, Chicago, IL, 2000, pp. 109-112).
55 See, Endnote xxix, supra.
56 PGA Tour, Inc., 121 S.Ct. at 1893.
William D. Goren is currently an Assistant Professor of Paralegal Studies at MacCormac College in Chicago. Mr. Goren has presented and published extensively on the ADA, including a book from the American Bar Association published in 2000 entitled, Understanding the Americans With Disabilities Act: An Overview for Lawyers, and an article on sovereign immunity and the ADA, which appeared in the January 2000 edition of The Brief. Mr. Goren received his A.B. in 1978 from Vassar College, his J.D. in 1985 from the University of San Diego, and his LL.M. in Health Law in 1989 from DePaul University.