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Court limits disability law for worker with corpal tunnel

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court narrowed the reach of a landmark disability rights law Tuesday, ruling that an assembly line worker with carpal tunnel syndrome was not entitled to special treatment on the job.

A unanimous court ruled that Ella Williams' partial disability did not obligate her employer, car manufacturer Toyota, to tailor a job to suit her wrist, arm and shoulder problems.

The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act guarantees equal treatment on the job and elsewhere for people whose disabilities "substantially limit" their ability to perform what the law calls "major life activities," such as caring for oneself.

Williams' disability did not prevent her from doing many tasks at home and at work. But a federal appeals court found that she was disabled under the ADA because her physical problems substantially limited her ability to perform manual tasks at work.

"This was error," the Supreme Court noted in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

In cases like Williams', "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," the court wrote.

Disability cannot be assessed by looking only at someone's fitness to work, the court said.

The court reversed the opinion of the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and sent the Williams case back with instructions to reconsider it.

The ruling does not mean that anyone with carpal tunnel syndrome or similar partial disabilities is automatically excluded from protection by the ADA. But it probably will make such claims harder to prove, since the court makes clear that disability must affect a range of manual tasks or duties.

Williams and advocates for the disabled had argued that her case was emblematic of just the kind of discrimination the ADA was supposed to prevent.

A partially disabled person who wants to work should be able to do so, with modest accommodation by an employer, rather than being forced to sit home, her lawyers have argued.

Williams claimed that her work on a Toyota engine assembly line so damaged her hands and arms that she has trouble brushing her hair and buckling her shoes. Her doctor said she cannot lift more than 20 pounds, repeatedly flex her wrists and elbows or keep her arms extended at shoulder height for long periods.

Williams' problems began within months of taking a job at the Georgetown, Ky., manufacturing plant in 1990, she claimed.

At oral argument in November, the justices focused on how employers and courts should classify people who may be unable to do some tasks, but are perfectly capable of doing others.

"Don't you have to look at both what they can do and what they can't do?" O'Connor asked Williams' lawyer then.

Toyota did try to accommodate Williams for a time, with a job inspecting paint, but that truce broke down when the company required her to swab cars with an oil that highlighted paint flaws. The task, which involved keeping her arms extended, aggravated her symptoms, Williams said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups backed Toyota. Several civil rights, legal and labor interests supported Williams.

The case is Toyota v. Williams, 00-1089.

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On the Net:

Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov

For the appeals court ruling: http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html and click on 6th Circuit

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