Sutton v United Air Lines

Citation119 S.Ct. 2139,527 U.S. 471,144 L.Ed.2d 450
Decision Date22 June 1999
Docket Number971943
PartiesSUTTON v. UNITED AIR LINES, INC. (97-1943) 130 F.3d 893, affirmed. SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES 119 S.Ct. 21391943 KAREN SUTTON and KIMBERLY HINTON, PETITIONERS v. UNITED AIR LINES, INC. ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT [
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Justice O'Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA or Act), 104 Stat. 328, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., prohibits certain employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their disabilities. See §12112(a). Petitioners challenge the dismissal of their ADA action for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. We conclude that the complaint was properly dismissed. In reaching that result, we hold that the determination of whether an individual is disabled should be made with reference to measures that mitigate the individual's impairment, including, in this instance, eyeglasses and contact lenses. In addition, we hold that petitioners failed to allege properly that respondent "regarded" them as having a disability within the meaning of the ADA.

I

Petitioners' amended complaint was dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 12(b)(6). Accordingly, we accept the allegations contained in their complaint as true for purposes of this case. See United States v. Gaubert, 499 U.S. 315, 327 (1991).

Petitioners are twin sisters, both of whom have severe myopia. Each petitioner's uncorrected visual acuity is 20/200 or worse in her right eye and 20/400 or worse in her left eye, but "[w]ith the use of corrective lenses, each has vision that is 20/20 or better." App. 23. Consequently, without corrective lenses, each "effectively cannot see to conduct numerous activities such as driving a vehicle, watching television or shopping in public stores," id., at 24, but with corrective measures, such as glasses or contact lenses, both "function identically to individuals without a similar impairment," ibid.

In 1992, petitioners applied to respondent for employment as commercial airline pilots. They met respondent's basic age, education, experience, and FAA certification qualifications. After submitting their applications for employment, both petitioners were invited by respondent to an interview and to flight simulator tests. Both were told during their interviews, however, that a mistake had been made in inviting them to interview because petitioners did not meet respondent's minimum vision requirement, which was uncorrected visual acuity of 20/100 or better. Due to their failure to meet this requirement, petitioners' interviews were terminated, and neither was offered a pilot position.

In light of respondent's proffered reason for rejecting them, petitioners filed a charge of disability discrimination under the ADA with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After receiving a right to sue letter, petitioners filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, alleging that respondent had discriminated against them "on the basis of their disability, or because [respondent] regarded [petitioners] as having a disability" in violation of the ADA. App. 26. Specifically, petitioners alleged that due to their severe myopia they actually have a substantially limiting impairment or are regarded as having such an impairment, see id., at 23 26, and are thus disabled under the Act.

The District Court dismissed petitioners' complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. See Civ. A. No. 96 5 121 (Aug. 28, 1996), App. to Pet. for Cert. A 27. Because petitioners could fully correct their visual impairments, the court held that they were not actually substantially limited in any major life activity and thus had not stated a claim that they were disabled within the meaning of the ADA. Id., at A 32 to A 36. The court also determined that petitioners had not made allegations sufficient to support their claim that they were "regarded" by the respondent as having an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Id., at A 36 to A 37. The court observed that "[t]he statutory reference to a substantial limitation indicates that an employer regards an employee as handicapped in his or her ability to work by finding the employee's impairment to foreclose generally the type of employment involved." Id., at A36 to A37. But petitioners had alleged only that respondent regarded them as unable to satisfy the requirements of a particular job, global airline pilot. Consequently, the court held that petitioners had not stated a claim that they were regarded as substantially limited in the major life activity of working. Employing similar logic, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment. 130 F.3d 893 (1997).

The Tenth Circuit's decision is in tension with the decisions of other Courts of Appeals. See, e.g., Bartlett v. New York State Bd. of Law Examiners, 156 F.3d 321, 329 (CA2 1998) (holding self-accommodations cannot be considered when determining a disability), cert. pending, No. 98 1285; Baert v. Euclid Beverage, Ltd., 149 F.3d 626, 629 630 (CA7 1998) (holding disabilities should be determined without reference to mitigating measures); Matczak v. Frankford Candy & Chocolate Co., 136 F.3d 933, 937 938 (CA3 1997) (same); Arnold v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 136 F.3d 854, 859 866 (CA1 1998) (same); see also Washington v. HCA Health Servs. of Texas, Inc., 152 F.3d 464, 470 471 (CA5 1998) (holding that only some impairments should be evaluated in their uncorrected state), cert. pending, No. 98 1365. We granted certiorari, 525 U.S. ___ (1999), and now affirm.

II

The ADA prohibits discrimination by covered entities, including private employers, against qualified individuals with a disability. Specifically, it provides that no covered employer "shall discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a); see also §12111(2) ("The term 'covered entity' means an employer, employment agency, labor organization, or joint labor-management committee"). A "qualified individual with a disability" is identified as "an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." §12111(8). In turn, a "disability" is defined as:

"(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual;

"(B) a record of such an impairment; or

"(C) being regarded as having such an impairment." §12102(2).

Accordingly, to fall within this definition one must have an actual disability (subsection (A)), have a record of a disability (subsection (B)), or be regarded as having one (subsection (C)).

The parties agree that the authority to issue regulations to implement the Act is split primarily among three Government agencies. According to the parties, the EEOC has authority to issue regulations to carry out the employment provisions in Title I of the ADA, §§12111 12117, pursuant to §12116 ("Not later than 1 year after [the date of enactment of this Act], the Commission shall issue regulations in an accessible format to carry out this subchapter in accordance with subchapter II of chapter 5 of title 5"). The Attorney General is granted authority to issue regulations with respect to Title II, subtitle A, §§12131 12134, which relates to public services. See §12134 ("Not later than 1 year after [the date of enactment of this Act], the Attorney General shall promulgate regulations in an accessible format that implement this part"). Finally, the Secretary of Transportation has authority to issue regulations pertaining to the transportation provisions of Titles II and III. See §12149(a) ("Not later than 1 year after [the date of enactment of this Act], the Secretary of Transportation shall issue regulations, in an accessible format, necessary for carrying out this subpart (other than section 12143 of this title)"); §12164 (substantially same); §12186(a)(1) (substantially same); §12143(b) ("Not later than one year after [the date of enactment of this Act], the Secretary shall issue final regulations to carry out this section"). See also §12204 (granting authority to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board to issue minimum guidelines to supplement the existing Minimum Guidelines and Requirements for Accessible Design). Moreover, each of these agencies is authorized to offer technical assistance regarding the provisions they administer. See §12206(c)(1) ("Each Federal agency that has responsibility under paragraph (2) for implementing this chapter may render technical assistance to individuals and institutions that have rights or duties under the respective subchapter or subchapters of this chapter for which such agency has responsibility").

No agency, however, has been given authority to issue regulations implementing the generally applicable provisions of the ADA, see §§12101 12102, which fall outside Titles I-V. Most notably, no agency has been delegated authority to interpret the term "disability." §12102(2). Justice Breyer's contrary, imaginative interpretation of the Act's delegation provisions, see post, at 1 2 (dissenting opinion), is belied by the terms and structure of the ADA. The EEOC has, nonetheless, issued regulations to provide additional guidance regarding the proper interpretation of this term. After restating the definition of disability given in the statute, see 29 CFR § 1630.2(g) (1998), the EEOC regulations...

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