Toyota case may affect disabilities law

Toyota at high court

The case: How "impaired" must a worker be before he or she is entitled to protection under federal disabilities law?

Where it stands: The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case. A
decision is due by mid-2002.

WASHINGTON - Automakers and other manufacturers would face a dramatic increase in the number of workers classified as disabled if Toyota fails to win a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, an employer group warns.

Otherwise, "this would be the first time the court has ever decided that the inability to perform certain aspects of a job qualify as a disability," said Patrick Cleary, senior vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

"This would in effect turn the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) into the Americans With Injuries Act," he said.

The remarks came outside the Supreme Court after oral arguments in the case Nov. 7.

Toyota, as well as manufacturing allies, says the hand and arm injuries - including carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis - that kept former employee Ella Williams from doing some assembly line jobs may qualify for workers' compensation. But they argue those injuries should not provide Williams with protection under the federal disabilities law.

U.S. sides with Toyota

The 1990 law requires reasonable accommodations in public buildings and workplaces for people with disabilities.

A federal district court rejected Williams' claims of disability, but the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, saying impairments in her ability to perform certain manual tasks constituted a disability.

The U.S. government, through the solicitor general's office, joined the argument on Toyota's side, saying the Sixth Circuit's decision should be reversed.

Assistant Solicitor General Barbara McDowell said if upheld the decision would extend disability protection to anyone unable to do a job.

It did appear after the one-hour argument that the nine justices are unlikely simply to affirm the Sixth Circuit opinion.

Even Williams' attorney, Robert Rosenbaum, told the high court the appellate opinion is flawed. That is, he wants the Supreme Court to uphold the result - that Williams is disabled and entitled to accommodation - but to use other rationale.

Ruling may bring clarity

Toyota attorney John Roberts told the justices that if the opinion is so flawed, the only proper course is reversal.

Outside court, he said the justices could take any of a number of approaches. They could reverse the Sixth Circuit and order a trial at the district court or a new opinion from the appellate court. Or they could reverse and attempt to define a disability.

A decision is due by mid-2002.

Some court observers believe the justices agreed to hear the case because they want a vehicle for clarifying the Americans With Disabilities Act, which has been the subject of much litigation.

But in their questioning of lawyers, the justices demonstrated that they, too, still are struggling with disability issues. One wondered aloud whether the case is a proper vehicle for clarification.

"This case may not be so significant," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Outside the court, Rosenbaum said he believes the justices still may use the case "to make broad pronouncements about the ADA and give guidance to people across the country as to what an ADA disability really means."

Said Roberts: "The more guidance we can get, the better off everybody will be."

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