Copyright © 1999 Nando Media
Copyright © 1999 Associated Press
By MAGGIE JACKSON
(April 26, 1999 6:11 p.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) -
Vaughn Murphy has high blood pressure that he controls with medication. When UPS fired him as a mechanic and driver, saying his condition made him unfit to drive, he sued under the law protecting the disabled. But is he really disabled?
This week, the Supreme Court considers whether Murphy, and workers in two similar cases, are protected by law from discrimination even if they have corrected their conditions with, say, medicine or eyeglasses. The court's eventual rulings will define who is protected under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act: just the severely disabled, or millions more with contact lenses, diabetes or hearing aids.
Employers and advocates for the disabled alike are closely watching the cases, which will be argued before the court starting Tuesday.
"The importance of this case and the other two is that they will determine how open the front door to the ADA will be," said Kirk Lowry, a Topeka, Kan., lawyer representing Murphy.
Lower courts have come down on both sides of the issue, giving the Supreme Court an impetus to step in and clarify the scope of the civil rights law banning discrimination against the disabled.
"Both employers and employees need to know what the correct rule of law is," said Aaron Hughes, lawyer for Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton, severely nearsighted twin sisters.
Sutton, of Spokane, Wash. and Hinton, of Petal, Miss., sued United Airlines for rejecting them from jobs as pilots. Their case comes before the court Wednesday.
The third case involves Hallie Kirkingburg, a truck driver hired in Portland, Ore. by Albertson's grocery stores. Kirkingburg, who has poor vision in one eye, sued the company after they fired him.
Employers have fared well in ADA court battles. They have won 92 percent of the 700 ADA cases resolved in court from 1992 to 1997, according to a study by the American Bar Association.
But now employers fear that victories by the workers in the Supreme Court cases could lead to a flood of new lawsuits.
"It will allow a much larger population to claim rights under the ADA," said Quentin Riegel, deputy general counsel for the National Association of Manufacturers, which has filed a brief with the court siding with United Parcel Service.
The numbers of people protected by the ADA would skyrocket. Take one example: Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population - or about 152 million people - are nearsighted enough to need glasses.
Employers scoff at the idea that a person whose impairment is corrected day-to-day can sue for discrimination under the ADA, which defines a disability as an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
UPS lawyer William Kilberg argues that by the ADA's definition, Murphy is "not entitled to the advantages that the statute reserves for people who are disabled." UPS says Murphy was fired in 1994 because his blood pressure exceeded federal regulations for drivers.
But advocates for the disabled - along with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - argue that if someone is fired or rejected from a job because of their impairment, that is discrimination.
"Say someone's lost a leg, and they can walk with a prosthesis, they're still substantially limited in a major life activity: walking," said Ellen Vargyas, EEOC legal counsel. "Most people would accept as a given that that person is covered."
Vaughn Murphy has found another job, fixing utility trucks. But he's still angry.
"It's blatant discrimination," said the Manhattan, Kan., mechanic.