Supreme Court ADA ruling is criticized by concerned AIDS activists
Less than one year after the U.S. Supreme Court tightened a federal law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, including those with HIV, the court last week ruled in three separate decisions that a disability must be considered regardless of any medications or treatments which control or alleviate it.
Peg Byron, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund media relations director, called the rulings "irrational," saying, "If you're able to treat or lessen the effect of your disability, you're now becoming exempt from that protection. It's a horrible ruling."
The reason for the rulings was to hinder an anticipated slew of lawsuits, which justices feared would result if the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) were construed as protecting the millions of Americans who wear eye glasses and have high blood pressure.
Calling the rulings a Catch 22, Catherine Hanssens, Lambda's AIDS project director said, "The court suggests that the ADA's safeguards against workplace discrimination vanish when people with disabilities find ways to overcome their limitations and make themselves more employable. These rulings strike at the very core of important civil rights protections for people with disabilities."
The three cases: Albertsons v. Kirkingburg, Sutton v. United Airlines, and Murphy v. United Parcel Service, each involved employees who had filed lawsuits after believing they had been discriminated against for vision impairments and high blood pressure.
In Albertsons, a Portland truck driver was dismissed from his job because of his monocular vision, despite having an excellent driving record, Hanssens stated. In Sutton, twin sisters were denied jobs as pilots for United Airlines despite having corrected their nearsightedness with eye glasses. And in Murphy, a mechanic was fired for having severe hypertension.
After being hired by UPS in 1994 for a mechanic's position, Vaughn Murphy took the required physical exam, was issued a health card, and was hired, according to Lambda. A later review of his medical records revealed he had high blood pressure and was fired soon after because his blood pressure exceeded safety standards, even though his condition was being controlled with medications.
Murphy sued UPS under the ADA, but his case was dismissed after he was found not to be disabled and consequently not entitled to ADA protection. Murphy appealed, arguing that his case should not have been dismissed because he could control his condition with medication and even if he is not disabled, UPS deemed that he was when they fired him.
"Let's not confuse disability with inability," said Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn. "The vast majority of people with disabilities are productive members of society."
In the case involving twin sisters, Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton, commercial airline pilots, both are near-sighted, and have corrected 20/20 vision. When they went to United Airlines to apply for pilot positions, they were turned down on the grounds that their uncorrected vision did not meet United's pilot requirements. After they filed a claim with ADA against United, the district court dismissed their case saying that because both their claims are correctable, they are not disabled. The Court of Appeals agreed that the sisters were not disabled because they could perform daily activities without difficulty.
United held that Sutton and Hinton were unable to perform as pilots, but Sutton and Hinton were not regarded as disabled by ADA standards and therefore not entitled to ADA protection.
"These decisions are unquestionably bad," Hanssens told Bay Windows. "They turn on its head a basic principle that many took for granted central to the ADA, which is that singling out somebody because of some physical characteristic or impairment that does not interfere with their ability to do their job, but is being used to explain why they can't do their job, is disability-based discrimination, pure and simple. It endorses the concept that it is OK to single somebody out because of a characteristic that you don't like."
Asked how the new rulings could affect people living with HIV, Hanssens said, "I think that people with HIV will not be hit as hard as those individuals that have disabilities that are considered more routine or not as historically stigmatized as HIV. I think that there are a range of ways to demonstrate that a person with HIV is substantially limited. The central reason why people with HIV are irrationally fired or irrationally rejected by health care providers is a common belief that they are impaired that they are unsafe to have around and limited in social interaction and that they are dangerous."
In all three cases, the court focused on whether the plaintiffs were substantially limited, or regarded as substantially limited, in the major life activity of working, Hanssens said. "Future cases based on other life activities which HIV often affects, such as the ability to associate freely with other individuals, to get health care, or even drink water out of a faucet, may produce a better analysis," Hanssens maintained.
Asked if she feels confident that Lambda can continue representing people with HIV who are discriminated against in the workplace and denied medical care, Hanssens said she was. "We are not going to stop bringing cases. If we are persistent and creative, I think we can work around these decisions.