Is Working a “Major Life Activity”?

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

Barbara Harvey

CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME is the single most prevalent industrial disease, affecting nearly half the workforce at some point in their working lives.  Nevertheless, the Bush administration turned its back on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ergonomics regulation of some of the industrial practices that cause the condition to proliferate.

That setback came after a long AFL-CIO campaign for these regulations.  Some optimists may then have turned their hopes to the U.S. Supreme Court to come to the rescue, in Toyota Motor Mfg. v. Williams. No such luck.

In Toyota, the intermediate appeals court ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) imposed on the employer a duty to accommodate a worker afflicted with serious and chronic work-related carpal tunnel syndrome.  For a period of years, this worker overcame her considerable impairment sufficiently to perform reliably all the functions of a quality control job that the employer had assigned to her as an accommodation.

A couple of years later, however, the employer reorganized the work, requiring the employee and others in similar positions to rotate between several different quality control jobs, some of which required the performance of repetitive functions at shoulder level, activity that the employee could not sustain.

Eventually, she was fired for excessive absenteeism.  The appeals court concluded that an employee whose impairment causes her to become unable to continue to do her job is “disabled” under the ADA. The Supreme Court disagreed.

The ADA does not define every impairment as a “disability.”  To qualify as a disability under the statute, the impairment must “substantially limit” a “major life activity.”

The Supreme Court conceded that carpal tunnel syndrome is an “impairment.”  The Court also conceded that Williams’ carpal tunnel syndrome prevented her from doing her job, as the employer had redefined it.

On the other hand, the unanimous Court agreed that an impairment that may entirely prevent an employee from performing his or her job is not necessarily a disability under the ADA. “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.”

Do You Need to Work?

Activities that are “central to daily life” under the ADA are such activities as walking, seeing, hearing, and manual tasks that either singly or collectively are central to daily life, such as dressing, brushing your teeth, bathing, preparing meals, and doing routine housework.

Why doesn’t work easily meet this criterion?  Work is not only “central” to daily life, but essential to it, as the key to health, shelter, adequate food, and basic welfare.  Work is the one activity that almost all of us spend most of our waking hours and years of our lives performing.

The Court did not entirely shut the door on these compelling objections.  But it did refuse to treat a particular constellation of manual tasks required to perform a specific job as a “major life activity.”

The Court took the position that while a particular manual ability may be essential to perform a particular job, this particular manual ability may be an unimportant part of “most people’s lives.”

Williams’ particular work required an ability to extend one’s arms out at shoulder level and perform repetitive tasks with arms so extended.  The ability to perform tasks at shoulder level, reasoned the Court, is not an important part of most people’s daily lives.

If work is recognized at all as a major life activity, future plaintiffs will be required to prove an inability to work in “a broad range of jobs.”

The Court’s ruling will embroil future plaintiffs in subjective fact-specific battles about what sort of manual tasks “most people” perform as part of their daily lives.

Pianists and surgeons who develop carpal tunnel syndrome in the course of their careers appear doomed as ADA plaintiffs, along with most other workers.  Wielding scalpels and playing pianos are even less important activities in most people’s daily lives than performing repetitive tasks at shoulder level.

The specifics of most of the repetitive functions that cause disabling carpal tunnel syndrome are unlikely, in themselves, to be integral parts of most people’s daily routines.  It would be a challenge to identify any repetitive work tasks that are also integral parts of most people’s daily lives.

As a practical matter, the Supreme Court has stricken carpal tunnel syndrome from the group of actionable disabilities, except in cases so severe that the victim cannot perform such functions as dressing, household chores, brushing teeth, or broad categories of jobs.

How these broad categories are defined will undoubtedly be the subject of many, many more expensive, time-consuming lawsuits and, if the ADA is not amended, further Supreme Court attention.

What If?

What the Court could not get past was the enormous implication of ruling that, for a particular individual, the particular job or the particular manual tasks associated with the job are “major life activities.”

Such a ruling would have granted potential handicapper status to everyone who types in the course of a workday’s activities, from secretaries to lawyers, as well as to almost all assembly line workers, jackhammer operators, skilled and unskilled craftsmen, and many groups of other workers who engage in repetitive motions that may eventually cause carpal tunnel syndrome.

The Supreme Court adamantly refuses to see the ADA as a broad mandate for social change and employer responsibility for the treatment of disabled people.  It was inevitable that the Court would decline to take so large, and radical, a step.

The statute must be interpreted “to create a demanding standard,” admonished the Court.  In enacting the ADA, reasoned the Court, Congress found that about 43,000,000 Americans were physically or mentally disabled—not 100,000,000.  Yet some 100,000,000 Americans need corrective lenses.

This analytically thin approach was a rationale for the result in Sutton v. United Air Lines, in 1999, in which the Court held that an individual whose otherwise disabling poor vision is adequately remedied by corrective lenses is not “disabled” under the ADA.

It is correct that, in enacting the ADA, Congress made a finding that recognized only 43,000,000 disabled Americans.  But Congress also, at the same time, made broad and strong statements of its intent in enacting the ADA. It found that:

Historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities, and, despite some improvements, such forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities continue to be a serious and pervasive social problem;

Discrimination against individuals with disabilities persists in such critical areas as employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting, and access to public services .  .  .  .

The continuing existence of unfair and unnecessary discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete on an equal basis and to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous, and costs the United States billions of dollars in unnecessary expenses resulting from dependency and nonproductivity.

Congress stated the purposes of the ADA as being:

(1) to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities; (2) to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities; (3) to ensure that the Federal Government plays a central role in enforcing the standards established in this chapter on behalf of individuals with disabilities.

The Toyota decision undermines each of these stated Congressional purposes.  Nevertheless, it should not be viewed as surprising, despite the Congressional lip service to social justice.

A plaintiff’s victory would have had broad implications for the shifting of social welfare responsibility to employers—a truly revolutionary development, one that the third branch of government is structurally incapable of birthing, because it is institutionally committed to the status quo.

Barbara Harvey is a Detroit labor attorney specializing in rank-and-file and workplace rights.

ATC 99, July-August 2002