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Americans with Disabilities Act

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Sutton v. United Airlines

Plaintiffs in Sutton are twin sisters who are commercial pilots. They are both severely myopic, with uncorrected vision of worse than 20/200. They applied to be airline pilots and were turned down because the airline required pilots to have uncorrected vision of 20/100 or better. Plaintiffs sued under the ADA, claiming discrimination. The plaintiffs' specific claim is not clear from the case because the court dismissed their case finding they were not covered by the ADA. It is assumed that they claimed that either the uncorrected 20/100 standard is discriminatory because it ignores the effectiveness of their accomodation, or that they were otherwise qualified because of their corrected vision.

The district court's opinion points up the dilemma of an ADA discrimination claim based on being otherwise qualified because of an accomodation: if the plaintiff shows that the accomodation eliminates the effect of the disability, the defendant will then counter that the plaintiff is not covered by the ADA. As the court found:

"First, Plaintiffs do not claim any restrictions on their activities other than their inability to obtain employment as passenger airline pilots for United. Plaintiffs do not allege that they have any medical restrictions. Plaintiffs do not allege any activity that they are unable to perform that the average person in the general population can perform, nor do they state that they suffer from any significant restrictions in any activities as compared to the average person. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(l)(i) and (ii). Indeed, they are currently employed as commercial airline pilots. Plaintiffs concede that, with their corrective lenses, they are able to function identically to individuals without a similar impairment. An individual is not substantially limited in a major life activity if the limitation, when viewed in light of the factors in 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(2), does not amount to a significant restriction when compared with the abilities of the average person. 29 C.F.R. Pt. 1630 App. § 1630.2(j)."

Thus, when mitigations are considered, plaintiffs are only impaired in the life activity of working as an airline pilot. The court rejects this argument, finds that a specific job is not a significant life activity. To interfere with the significant life activity of working, a person must either be unable to work, or at least unable to work at a broad class of jobs. That plaintiffs were able to work as pilots, albeit not as airline pilots, meant that they were impaired in the significant life activity of working and thus, not being impaired in any significant life activity, they were not covered by the ADA. The district court also rejected their claim that they were perceived as disabled. It found that it is not an improper presumption of disability to assume someone has a condition that itself, with mitigation, is not a disability.

The Supreme Court accepted the district court's rationale and upheld the determination that the plaintiffs are not disabled as defined by the ADA. The court based this on both the plain language of the ADA and on a reading of the legislative history as regards the number of people that Congress said would be covered by the ADA. The court found that the number of covered individuals would be much larger if it included persons with successfully mitigated conditions such as the plaintiffs. The court also argued that considering the unmitigated condition would foreclose plaintiff from claiming that the mitigation itself, such as anti-psychotic medications, were disabling.

The court found that employers may make decisions based on an employee's physical and mental conditions, as long as those conditions under consideration do not significantly impair a major life activity:

"By its terms, the ADA allows employers to prefer some physical attributes over others and to establish physical criteria. An employer runs afoul of the ADA when it makes an employment decision based on a physical or mental impairment, real or imagined, that is regarded as substantially limiting a major life activity. Accordingly, an employer is free to decide that physical characteristics or medical conditions that do not rise to the level of an impairment--such as one's height, build, or singing voice--are preferable to others, just as it is free to decide that some limiting, but not substantially limiting, impairments make individuals less than ideally suited for a job."

There are some flaws in the court's analysis. In this case, plaintiffs' corrected vision did not significantly interfere with a major life activity, which would disqualify plaintiffs from the coverage of the ADA. The defendant's standard, however, is a standard for plaintiff's uncorrected vision, which is bad enough to be an impairment of the significant life activity of seeing. Thus plaintiffs' corrected vision forecloses them from challenging defendant's standard, even though defendant's standard is based on uncorrected vision. This is very different from the court's examples of better singing voices or different heights or eye colors. A bad singing voice, being 5'6', or having blue eyes does not make a person disabled. Having vision worse than 20/200 does, when the issue is uncorrected vision.

Sutton may be a case of bad facts making bad law. Uncorrected vision may be important to an airline pilot because there are circumstances when the pilot may have to rely his/her uncorrected vision. (Smoke and condensation could make glasses and contacts ineffective, for example.) The court may have been reluctant to interfere with the employer's ability to consider uncorrected vision because of this safety issue. It would have been better, however, to acknowledge the safety issue and analyze the employee's fitness and the appropriateness of the uncorrected vision standard under the direct threat standard of the ADA as explicated in Bragdon.

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