Monday, June 8, 2009

United Airlines and the ADA Again

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a press release last week announcing that it sued United Airlines, alleging disability discrimination under the ADA.  This time 'round, United Airlines is accused of failing to provide a class of workers with "job transfers to vacant positions, despite their qualifications, as a reasonable accommodation."

You've probably already picked up that this is not United Airlines' first experience with the ADA. Just a couple of months ago, United settled an ADA claim for $850,000!  United Airlines was also involved in a major (some may say infamous) ADA case that provoked one of the biggest employment discrimination statutory amendments ever: the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) (Full text here).

In Sutton v. United Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999), the Supreme Court held that two severely myopic twin sisters applying for pilot positions with United were not disabled under the ADA. Their eye sight was quite poor (20/200) and failed to satisfy United's requirements for commercial pilots.  

The Supreme Court held the sisters did not meet the ADA's definition of "disabled" because they could see just fine with corrective lenses.  In other words, the Supreme Court told every federal court in the country to assess ADA plaintiffs' disabilities by taking into account the effects of mitigating measures.

This decision did not go over well in some circles, most notably Congress.  In 2008, the ADA was amended to, in part:
reject the requirement enunciated by the Supreme Court in Sutton v. United Air Lines... that whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is to be determined with reference to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures;
That's about as straightforward as it gets.  The ultimate irony here is that the ADAAA contains an explicit exception to this rule.  You don't count mitigating measures when determining whether an employee is disabled under the ADAAA... with an exception for corrective lenses, the exact issue in Sutton!

Here we are ten years after the Sutton decision and United is in the ADA spotlight again.  It's doubtful this new ADA suit will have the same historic impact as Sutton but you never know. The historic cases don't usually start out historic.  If nothing else, it provided an opportunity to reflect on a case that prompted a major revision to one of our nation's most prominent anti-discrimination statutes.