A beacon or mirage for New Jersey Employers?
On January 8, 2002, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams. In reversing an opinion by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, a unanimous Court determined that the plaintiff, Ella Williams, had not shown under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) that she was substantially limited in the major life activity of manual tasks. This decision was widely reported in the local press and unwary New Jersey employers might be inclined to place reliance on this decision in making employment related decisions regarding their employees who suffer some form of physical or mental impairment. At least in New Jersey, such reliance is a risky proposition.
Before indicating why there are risks in placing reliance on the Williams decision, let us first more fully review the Supreme Court’s decision. By way of factual background, Ms. Williams was a production worker at an automotive plant. Apparently as a result of her use of pneumatic tools, she developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Later, she was diagnosed with myotendinitis bilateral periscapular, an inflammation of the muscles and tendons around both her shoulder blades and other soft tissue maladies which caused pain in the nerves that lead to the upper extremities. At least for a period of time, the Company attempted to accommodate Ms. Williams’ medical problems by reassignment to duties which did not run counter to limitations suggested by her physician. However, ultimately, she was discharged, though the parties sharply disagree about the circumstances leading thereto. More specifically, Ms. Williams claimed that her termination followed the Company’s refusal to accommodate her disability; the consequent worsening of her condition; which lead to her being medically unable to work at Toyota. To the contrary, argued Toyota, Williams was terminated due to her poor attendance record.
By statute, to make a claim under the ADA, one must be “disabled.” Disability under the ADA can be one of three things, either:
- a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual;
- a record of such impairment; or
- being regarded as having such an impairment.
Importantly, the Williams decision rests only on the first of these three criteria and on a narrow basis of the criteria applied.
Specifically, the Sixth Circuit held that because Ms. Williams was substantially limited in the manual tasks associated with her work that she met the first listed criteria. Having so found, the Sixth Circuit concluded that it did not need to determine whether Ms. Williams was substantially limited in the major life activity of working (as opposed to the manual tasks of her job) or whether she had a record of disability (criteria B) or had been regarded by Toyota as being disabled (criteria C). The Supreme Court expressed no opinion on the issues left undecided by the Sixth Circuit. Essentially, the Court simply said that the lower court was wrong in finding that Ms. Williams satisfied the first criteria simply by showing that she could not perform the manual tasks associated with her job.
In so concluding, the Supreme Court noted that only substantial impairments reach the level of ADA disabilities. Additionally, the phrase “major life activities “in criteria A means “activities that are of central importance to daily life.” Significantly, the Court found that phrases such as “substantial impairment “and “major life activities “should be “interpreted to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled.”
Given this interpretation, it followed that Ms. Williams was not disabled from the major life activity of performing manual tasks. In reaching the opposite result, the Sixth Circuit focused solely on the manual tasks at work and the Supreme Court found this focus to be too narrow. Rather, the focus should have been on “the variety of tasks central to most people’s lives, “which the Court of Appeals disregarded, such as Ms. Williams’ ability to care for “her personal hygiene..[perform] household chores, bathing, and brushing one’s teeth “and the like.
Williams impact on ADA cases
It is a challenge to project the impact of the Williams decision on future ADA cases. On the one hand, given the fact that the Court offered no direction on criteria B and C, and confined its ruling to only one theory available under criteria A, one can legitimately read the opinion very narrowly, meaning it will have limited importance. On the other hand, given (a) the fact that the decision was unanimous; (b) the Court’s clear dictate that key passages in the ADA such as “major like activities “are to be given narrow interpretation; and (c) the fact that there was no dispute that the plaintiff was genuinely materially physically impaired, one can read Williams as a watershed opinion with profound future importance.
New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, and judicial interpretations thereof, limit the practical impact of Williams regardless whether it is to be broadly or narrowly construed.
As a practical matter, New Jersey plaintiffs with disability claims can “forum shop, “in other words, they can venue their case in federal court, making both ADA and New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) claims, or they can file in New Jersey Superior Court simply alleging violation of LAD. Williams may simply have the effect of making the selection of the Superior Court more appealing. This greater appeal arises from the fact that Williams may make ADA claims materially more difficult to prove than those arising under LAD, and if a plaintiff loses his/her ADA claim to a motion for summary judgment, then the federal court is deprived of jurisdiction of the entire matter.
Indeed, even before Williams, the legal standards applying to a claim of disability discrimination under the ADA versus the LAD were profoundly different. In the first place, the statutory definition of “handicapped “under the LAD is much broader than the ADA definition of “disability.” In the second place, the decisions of the New Jersey Courts have been far more expansive than federal court interpretations of the ADA.
Illustrative of this later point is Anderson v. Exxon, the first handicap discrimination decision of consequence by the New Jersey Courts. Mr. Anderson had a history of back problems which limited him, according to his physician, simply to not lifting weights in excess of 100 pounds and not engaging in “contact sports.” Given these relatively minor restrictions, Exxon urged the Court to find that only severe disabilities meet the definition of ‘handicapped “but this position was rejected. Indeed, the Court stated that “it would be ironic indeed for the individual only slightly handicapped to be denied coverage under the act while more restricted individuals are accorded protection.” Based on Williams, and earlier federal cases, it is plain that the United States Supreme Court would find no irony in this dichotomy under the ADA: indeed they would say the legislature ordained precisely this result. New Jersey cases which followed Anderson are consistent with the philosophy of expansive interpretative of the definition of “handicapped.” Our Courts have repeatedly stated that the definition is “very broad “bringing under its wing, among other conditions, alcoholism, past drug addiction, obesity and most recently, gender dysphonia, an emotional condition where one identifies not with his/her own gender but with the other.
Given the liberality of the interpretations under the LAD an employers day to day decision making should not be altered by Williams. Illustrative, the soundest medically based employment decisions are those made with the advice of medical professionals. It may well be that the federal courts will no longer be the forum of choice, but the risk of running amuck of statutory protections for the handicapped does not appear to be fundamentally altered in New Jersey.
Should you have questions regarding this publication, please contact Capehart & Scatchard, PA.