- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

Diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome so severe that a doctor orders "no work of any kind" does not automatically shelter an employee under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The central issue when deciding whether a person is disabled under ADA is whether she can perform "activities that are of central importance to most people's daily lives" rather than simply do her job, the 9-0 decision said.
The decision is the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that have set boundaries on who is covered by the 1990 law.
The court said Ella Williams, whose doctors said she no longer could inspect Toyota paint jobs at a Kentucky factory, "could still brush her teeth, wash her face, bathe, tend her flower garden, fix breakfast, do laundry and pick up around the house" and so may not be disabled.
"An individual's carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosis, on its own, does not indicate whether the individual has a disability within the meaning of the ADA," said the opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who seemed to suggest the large variations in severity and duration of carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis make them jury questions.
The decision hinged on common musculoskeletal disorders that the U.S. Labor Department says affect some 2 million workers, of whom one-third miss some work.
The ruling was greeted by U.S. industry as a sweeping victory, but those representing workers had a different view.
Noah D. Lebowitz, San Francisco attorney for the National Employment Lawyers Association, called the ruling a Catch-22.
"Who in this world is going to be unable to brush their teeth, brush their hair and wash their face, and still be able to perform manual tasks on the job?" he said.
He and other advocates for the disabled found a ray of light in the ruling's directive that courts not resolve conflicts in those abilities as "a matter of law." Matters of law are decided by a judge rather than a jury.
"It raises the bar but doesn't close the door," said Arlene Mayerson of the National Council on Disability in Berkeley, Calif.
Washington lawyer John G. Roberts Jr., who won the case, referred inquiries to Pat Nepute, Toyota's general counsel for North American manufacturing operations.
"The ADA was never intended to cover every relatively minor or routine workplace injury. ADA was intended to remove barriers that keep the truly disabled genuinely disabled people out of the workplace," Mr. Nepute said from Lexington, Ky.
Stephen Bokat, who heads the National Chamber of Commerce Litigation Center, reflected industry's view that the workers' compensation system provided for what he called "routine injuries and impairments."
"Expanding the ADA from covering workers with disabilities to include workers who cannot perform a particular job function would have exploded the cost of doing business and dramatically increased all employers' risk for lawsuits from disgruntled workers," Mr. Bokat said.
As it has in previous interpretations of the law, the court declined to consider whether work itself is an important life activity, which would invoke the ADA when a person was unable to do the job.
The opinion requires assessment of ADA claims case by case to decide whether afflictions that hamper workers on the job also keep them during the long term from performing such things as personal hygiene.
The ruling overturned a decision by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that Ella Williams' inability to hold tools, do heavy lifting or hold her hands overhead was sufficient to invoke ADA protections that require an employer to make "reasonable accommodation."
Toyota's assembly plant in Georgetown, Ky., fired Mrs. Williams in January 1997 for poor attendance on her job where she inspected paint jobs on new cars every 54 seconds. Her last day of work was seven weeks earlier on Dec. 6, 1996, when her doctors ordered that she do "no work of any kind" because of tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
A district judge threw Mrs. Williams' lawsuit out of court before trial, but the 6th Circuit reinstated that case with the decision the high court overturned yesterday. The case now goes back to the 6th Circuit, which will rule on whether a trial will go forward. Toyota will contend that the case should be dismissed again without trial, even under the new ruling.
Mrs. Williams, who earned upward of $50,000 a year, has not worked since 1997 and stays home with three children. Her husband still works at Toyota in the same earnings range, said her attorney, Leslie Rosenbaum of Lexington.
"This case is a long way from being over," said Mr. Rosenbaum, who now will ask the 6th Circuit to let a jury consider "whether or not the ability to perform repetitive manual activity is of central importance to daily lives."
"I think that a jury can look at this evidence and come to a conclusion that, because of her manual impairments, she can't do most of the same things that are of central importance in the lives of most people," Mr. Rosenbaum said.
"An individualized assessment of the effect of an impairment is particularly necessary when the impairment is one whose symptoms vary widely from person to person," the Supreme Court ruling said.
"Carpal tunnel syndrome, one of respondent's impairments, is just such a condition," the court said, quoting medical studies that show 25 percent of such cases are resolved in one month without surgery and 22 percent are so severe they last for eight years or more.
Symptoms range from the severe muscle atrophy and loss of senses to simply occasional numbness or tingling, the opinion said.
Cases caused by pregnancy "normally resolve within two weeks of delivery."
The fact that she had to quit dancing and occasionally seek help dressing or caring for her children "did not amount to such severe restrictions in the activities that are of central importance to most people's daily lives that they establish a manual-task disability as a matter of law," the high court said.

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