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Those Tasks Aren’t Important: The Supreme Court Limits Application of the ADA

Labor and Employment Law

In Toyota Motor Mfg., Ky., Inc. v. Williams, 122 S. Ct. 681 (2002), the Supreme Court held that the determination of whether an individual’s physical impairment substantially limits the major life activity of performing manual tasks, thereby qualifying as a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), must be made by analyzing the physical impairment’s impact on tasks that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.1 Accordingly, the analysis cannot focus on a limited number of manual tasks that are tangential to the daily functioning of most individuals.2 In so holding, the Supreme Court severely limited the number of employees subject to the protections of the ADA.

The plaintiff in Toyota Motor worked on a Quality Control Inspection Operations (QCIO) team in defendant’s automobile manufacturing plant.3 Plaintiff’s duties involved visually inspecting painted cars for scratches, chips, or any other flaws that may have occurred during the assembly or painting process.4 In addition, plaintiff was required to wipe each painted car with a glove as it moved along a conveyor.5 Plaintiff rotated between these jobs on a weekly basis.6 After plaintiff rotated between these duties for approximately two years, another job was added to plaintiff’s rotations in the fall of 1996. This duty required her to apply highlight oil, with a sponge attached to a block of wood, to the hood, fender, doors, rear quarter panel and trunk of passing cars. After wiping the car with the oil, plaintiff was required to visually inspect for flaws.7 This job required plaintiff to hold her hands and arms up around shoulder height for several hours at a time.8 A short while after this job was added to plaintiff’s rotations, she began to experience pain in her neck and shoulders. She was diagnosed by defendant’s in-house medical service with various conditions that affected her shoulder blades, forearms, and nerves leading to the upper extremities.9

Plaintiff requested that defendant accommodate her by returning her to the first two jobs she performed, without duties related to the third job.10 According to Plaintiff, defendant refused this request and forced her to continue working in the third job, which caused exacerbation of her injuries.11 After receiving a right to sue letter from the EEOC, plaintiff filed suit, alleging that defendant had violated, inter alia, the ADA, by failing to reasonably accommodate her disability when she requested a return to her first two jobs.12 Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that she was disabled, because she was substantially limited in the major life activity of, inter alia, manual tasks.13 Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment that she was disabled under the ADA. The district court granted final summary judgment for defendant, reasoning, inter alia, that plaintiff’s claim that she was substantially limited in manual tasks was barred by her insistence that she could perform the tasks of her first two jobs.14

Plaintiff appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court’s ruling on whether plaintiff was disabled at the time she sought an accommodation.15 According to the Sixth Circuit, in order for plaintiff to demonstrate that she was substantially limited in the ability to perform manual tasks, she had to “show that her manual disability involved a class of manual activities affecting the ability to perform tasks at work.”16

The Sixth Circuit held that plaintiff satisfied this test, because her ailments “prevented her from doing the tasks associated with certain types of manual assembly line jobs, manual product handling jobs, and manual building trade jobs that require gripping of tools and repetitive work with hands and arms extended at or above shoulder levels for extended periods of time.”17 The fact that plaintiff could tend to her personal hygiene and carry out personal or household chores was irrelevant, because plaintiff was not able to perform the range of tasks associated with an assembly line job.18 Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit held that summary judgment should have been granted for plaintiff on the issue of whether she was disabled at the time of her request for an accommodation.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine the proper standard for assessing whether an individual is substantially limited in performing manual tasks in order to qualify as an individual with a disability under the ADA.19 The Supreme Court disagreed with the Sixth Circuit’s analysis of the issue and reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision to grant partial summary judgment to plaintiff.20

Initially, looking to the plain meaning of the term “substantially” in “substantially limited”, the Supreme Court noted impairments that interfere in only a minor way with the performance of manual tasks could not qualify as disabilities under the ADA.21 Further, looking at the plain meaning of the term “major” in “major life activities,” the Supreme Court opined that the manual tasks at issue must be central to daily life.22 Therefore, if each of the tasks does not independently qualify as a major life activity, then together they must do so.23

Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that to be substantially limited in performing manual tasks, an individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives. Further, the impact of the impairment must be permanent or long-term.24

The Supreme Court supported its strict interpretation of the statutory terms with legislative findings and purposes included in the first section of the ADA. In that section, Congress found that “some 43,000,000” Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities.25 The Supreme Court reasoned that had Congress intended that everyone with a physical impairment that precluded the performance of isolated, unimportant or particularly difficult tasks to qualify as disabled, then the number would have been much higher.26

In addition to defining the standard, the Supreme Court provided guidance for lower courts in applying the standard. The Supreme Court stated that “it is insufficient for individuals attempting to prove disability status under this test to merely submit evidence of a medical diagnosis of an impairment.”27

Rather, the claimant must prove a disability by offering evidence that the extent of the limitation caused by the impairment is substantial in terms of his or her own daily experiences.28 Disability must be determined in a case-by-case manner, and a categorical inclusion in the term “disability” of any impairment is not possible.29

After defining and illustrating the proper standard, the Supreme Court turned to whether the Sixth Circuit’s decision could be upheld under that standard. The Supreme Court held that it could not, for several reasons.

First, the Sixth Circuit relied on Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999), for the concept that a “class” of manual activities must be implicated for an impairment to substantially limit the major life activity of performing manual tasks.30 However, the Supreme Court noted that Sutton was limited to the major life activity of working, and nothing in the ADA, its previous opinions, or the regulations suggests that a class-based framework should apply outside the context of the major life activity of working.31

Second, not only did the Sixth Circuit improperly apply Sutton, a case involving the major life activity of working, to decide an issue regarding the major life activity of manual tasks, but the Sixth Circuit failed to uphold the central tenet of Sutton that an inquiry into disability cannot be focused simply on the plaintiff’s own job. Rather than focusing on the tasks of a single job, the disability inquiry must center on plaintiff’s ability to perform the variety of tasks central to most people’s daily lives.32

Third, the ADA does not permit the determination of whether an individual’s impairment qualifies as a disability to be made by simply analyzing the affect of the impairment in the workplace. Rather, the individual’s functioning must be determined as a whole, both within and without the workplace.33 The Sixth Circuit erred by focusing solely on plaintiff’s inability to perform specific tasks at the assembly plant.34

In the case at hand, for example, plaintiff was able to perform chores, bathe, tend to her flower garden, fix breakfast, do laundry, pick up around the house, and brush her teeth. All of these tasks are of central importance to most people’s daily lives, and should have been part of the analysis of whether plaintiff was disabled.35

Because the Sixth Circuit failed to apply the proper standard, and the record evidence could not support the Sixth Circuit’s grant of summary judgment to plaintiff under the proper standard, the Supreme Court reversed the grant of partial summary judgment to plaintiff on the issue of whether she was disabled. However, because defendant did not ask the Supreme Court to reinstate the district court’s grant of summary judgment to it, the Supreme Court merely remanded the case for further proceedings.

The holding in Toyota Motor represents a logical extension of Sutton. Sutton held that, assuming that working can be classified as a major life activity under the ADA, an individual is not substantially limited in the major life activity of working, simply because he or she cannot perform a single, particular job. Rather, to be disabled under the ADA, the individual must be excluded from more than one type of job, a specialized job, or a particular job of choice. The EEOC regulations state that:ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills, and abilities. The inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.”36

It would have rendered Sutton a nullity to hold that an individual unable to perform a specialized job, such as a single job on a Quality Control Inspection Operations (QCIO) team at an assembly plant, could make out a claim that he or she was disabled in the major life activity of performing the manual tasks associated with that particular job. Plaintiffs could have avoided Sutton through creative pleading that they are disabled in performing manual tasks, rather than working.

Through the combined holdings of Sutton and Toyota Motor, the Supreme Court has limited the number of employees who will be able to claim protection under the ADA and expanded the inquiry that must be made in each case. Rather than simply showing that he or she cannot perform the requirements of a single job, the plaintiff will have to demonstrate either: 1) that the impairment has completely limited plaintiff from obtaining jobs utilizing plaintiff’s skills or a whole host of different types of jobs; or 2) that the impairment prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.

In addition to clarifying the standard that must be met to be “disabled” under the ADA, the Toyota holding requires a case-by-case analysis of whether the employee meets that standard. focusing on limitations both on and off the job, an individualized analysis will be required, because plaintiffs must provide greater details on their personal lives in order to show an impairment in the major life activity of manual tasks. “ Toyota acknowledged the need for individual assessment of impairments in which symptoms vary widely from person to person.”37 In addition to requiring more personal information from employees, such inquiries will require employers to fully investigate individual employees’ conditions when they receive accommodation requests. Further, this focus on an individualized inquiry will steer courts away from ruling out categories of ailments as disabilities. For instance, despite fears to the contrary, Toyota did not find that carpal tunnel syndrome is not a disability. In one of many cases citing Toyota since January, the court in Carroll v. Chicago Trans. Auth. , 2002 U.S. Dist. Lexis 2125, *9 (N.D. Ill. February 8, 2002), held that an employee who had not yet had the opportunity to produce evidence on the affect of carpal tunnel on his daily life activities could not be subject to a motion to dismiss based on Toyota. Because of the necessity of an individualized assessment, it is anticipated that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will issue guidelines on the major life activities that must now be reviewed in order to determine if an employee is disabled under Toyota.38

In the six months following the decision, many cases have cited Toyota and applied the required case-by-case analysis to hold that the plaintiff was not “disabled” under the ADA. For example, in Thornton v. McClatchy Newspapers, 2002 U.S. App. Lexis 11096 (9th Cir. June 11, 2002), the court found that a reporter’s inability to continuously type or write was not a substantial limitation on manual tasks under Toyota. The court found that while typing and writing were important to her as a reporter, doing so continuously is not of central importance to most people’s daily lives.

Similarly, in Marsolais v. Mass. Dept. of Correction, 2002 U.S. Dist. Lexis 3991 (D. Mass. March 7, 2002), a Massachusetts federal district court found that a corrections officer with back injuries was not disabled because no evidence was presented indicating that the problem substantially limited one or more major life activities. Rather, it only interfered with his performance as a corrections officer.

Finally, in Carroll v. Neumann, 2002 U.S. Dist. Lexis 9910 (S.D. Fla. April 9, 2002), the Southern District of Florida granted summary judgment to the employer. An employee with cardiac problems did not present evidence that his heart condition left him unable to perform a broad class of jobs or otherwise impaired his ability to learn, perform normal daily functions, care for himself, or participate in sports.

These cases show that lower courts are indeed focusing on the distinction between not being able to perform a single job, as opposed to a broad class of job functions, and between an activity that is central to one person’s life, as opposed to most people’s daily lives. In these instances, Toyota has indeed limited application of the ADA by leading courts to find that the ailments in question were not a substantial limitation on the major life activities of either working or performing manual tasks. It is expected that courts will continue to limit ADA coverage under the holding in Toyota. Only those plaintiffs who can demonstrate an individualized satisfaction of the heightened Toyota standard will be able to prevail.

1 Toyota Motor Mfg., Ky., Inc. v. Williams, 122 S. Ct. 681, 691(2002).

2 Id. at 691.

3 Id. at 687.

4 Id. at 686.

5 Id. at 687.

6 Id.

7 Id.

8 Id.

9 Id.

10 Id.

11 Id.

12 Id.

13 Id.

14 Id. at 688.

15 Id.

16 Id.

17 Id.

18 Id.

19 Id. at 689.

20 Id.

21 Id. at 691.

22 Id.

23 Id.

24 Id.

25 Id.

26 Id.

27 Id.

28 Id. at 691–92.

29 Id. at 692.

30 Id. at 692.

31 Id. at 693.

32 Id.

33 Id.

34 Id.

35 Id.

36 29 C.F.R. §1630.2(j)(3)(i).

37 Carroll v. Chicago Trans. Auth., 2002 U.S. Dist. Lexis 2125, *9 (N.D. Ill. February 8, 2002).

38 Good News in Reasonable Accommodation Outlook, Attorneys Tell SHRM Conference, No. 50 BNA Daily Labor Report (March 14, 2002).


Scott T. Silverman, a partner with the Tampa law firm of Zinober & mcCrea, P.A., has been practicing law since 1994. He received his B.A. from Washington & Lee University in 1990 and his J.D., with highest honors, from Washington University School of Law in 1994. Mr. Silverman was Notes and Comments Editor of the Washington University Law Quarterly. He was contributing editor to the Developing Labor Law, Labor and Employment Section, ABA, 4th edition and the 1997-2002 Cumulative Supplements.

This column is submitted on behalf of the Labor and Employment Law Section, Courtney B. Wilson, chair, and Stuart A. Rosenfeldt, editor.

Labor and Employment Law