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Supreme Court Clarifies ADA, Won't Review Privacy Case

In early January 2002, the US Supreme Court took action in two separate cases of interest to converting industry employers, one involving claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and another involving video and audio surveillance of employees.

First, the Court ruled a Toyota employee's carpal tunnel syndrome was not a covered disability under the ADA. The decision in Toyota Motor Mfg., Ky., Inc. v. Williams, U.S. No. 00-1089 (1/8/02), represents an important victory for employers.

The Court, however, decided not to review a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluding invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims related to worker surveillance activities were not preempted by the Labor-Management Relations Act (LMRA). The case was Consolidated Freightways Inc. v. Cramer, U.S. No. 01-432, cert. denied 1/7/02.

The Consolidated Freightways case is symptomatic of the growing tension surrounding employee privacy and workplace monitoring.

For employers struggling to determine when a “disability” is covered under the ADA and the scope of required accommodation, the Toyota decision offers welcome clarification. Toyota attempted to accommodate an assembly line worker suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis but eventually terminated her employment for excessive absenteeism. She sued, claiming her disability substantially limited her in certain work and household activities she claimed were “major life activities.”

While the District Court found for Toyota, the Sixth Circuit reversed, saying the impairments substantially limited the respondent in the major life activity of performing manual tasks.

The Supreme Court concluded the Sixth Circuit did not apply the proper standard in determining the respondent was disabled under the ADA. The Court noted evidence of a substantial impairment was required; a mere medical diagnosis was inadequate. It first concluded that for a disability to be “substantial,” it must significantly restrict an individual's ability to perform a significant activity. Second, it ruled unless an activity is centrally important to daily life of most people, it does not qualify as a “major life activity” under the ADA. The impairment's impact also must be permanent or long-term to qualify.

In the Consolidated Freightways case, the Ninth Circuit allowed close to 300 employees represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 63 to proceed with claims charging Consolidated's secret video and audio recordings constituted invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Monitoring via two-way mirrors at the company's restrooms was designed to catch drivers using illegal drugs. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit initially agreed the LMRA preempted the employee claims. In an en banc ruling, however, the Ninth Circuit found the employee claims were not covered by the collective bargaining agreement. Under California law, installation or maintenance of a two-way mirror allowing observation of a restroom and use of electronic devices to eavesdrop on confidential communications are misdemeanors.

The Toyota decision clarifies that assessing when an employee is disabled requires an analysis of more than just whether the employee is able to perform the tasks of her job. The Ninth Circuit decision involves a form of employee surveillance that strikes many as distasteful but reflects a growing challenge as workers' privacy concerns increase: What is the extent of permissible employee surveillance given existing workplace and public safety and conduct standards? The resolution of this debate will affect converting industry employers in the future.

Sheila A. Millar, a partner with Keller and Heckman LLP, counsels both corporate and association clients. Contact her at 202/434-4143; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.;

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