Toyota Motor Manufacturing v Williams

Citation122 S.Ct. 681,534 U.S. 184,151 L.Ed.2d 615
Decision Date08 January 2002
Docket Number00-1089
Parties TOYOTA MOTOR MANUFACTURING, KENTUCKY, INC., PETITIONER v. ELLA WILLIAMSSupreme Court of the United States
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus

Claiming to be disabled from performing her automobile assembly line job by carpal tunnel syndrome and related impairments, respondent sued petitioner, her former employer, for failing to provide her with a reasonable accommodation as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12112 (b)(5)(A). The District Court granted petitioner summary judgment, holding that respondent's impairment did not qualify as a "disability" under the ADA because it had not "substantially limit[ed]" any "major life activit[y]," §12102(2)(A), and that there was no evidence that respondent had had a record of a substantially limiting impairment or that petitioner had regarded her as having such an impairment. The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that the impairments substantially limited respondent in the major life activity of performing manual tasks. In order to demonstrate that she was so limited, said the court, respondent had to show that her manual disability involved a "class" of manual activities affecting the ability to perform tasks at work. Respondent satisfied this test, according to the court, because her ailments prevented her from doing the tasks associated with certain types of manual jobs that require the gripping of tools and repetitive work with hands and arms extended at or above shoulder levels for extended periods of time. In reaching this conclusion, the court found that evidence that respondent could tend to her personal hygiene and carry out personal or household chores did not affect a determination that her impairments substantially limited her ability to perform the range of manual tasks associated with an assembly line job. The court granted respondent partial summary judgment on the issue whether she was disabled under the ADA.

Held: The Sixth Circuit did not apply the proper standard in determining that respondent was disabled under the ADA because it analyzed only a limited class of manual tasks and failed to ask whether respondent's impairments prevented or restricted her from performing tasks that are of central importance to most people's daily lives. Pp. 7-18.

(a) The Court's consideration of what an individual must prove to demonstrate a substantial limitation in the major life activity of performing manual tasks is guided by the ADA's disability definition. "Substantially" in the phrase "substantially limits" suggests "considerable" or "to a large degree," and thus clearly precludes impairments that interfere in only a minor way with performing manual tasks. Cf. Albertson's, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, 527 U.S. 555 , 565. Moreover, because "major" means important, "major life activities" refers to those activities that are of central importance to daily life. In order for performing manual tasks to fit into this category, the tasks in question must be central to daily life. To be substantially limited in the specific major life activity of performing manual tasks, therefore, 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. The impairment's impact must also be permanent or long-term. See 29 CFR §§1630.2(j)(2)(ii-iii).

It is insufficient for individuals attempting to prove disability status under this test to merely submit evidence of a medical diagnosis of an impairment. Instead, the ADA requires them to offer evidence that the extent of the limitation caused by their impairment in terms of their own experience is substantial. Id., at 567. That the Act defines "disability" "with respect to an individual," §12102(2), makes clear that Congress intended the existence of a disability to be determined in such a case-by-case manner. See, e.g., Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 , 483. An individualized assessment of the effect of an impairment is particularly necessary when the impairment is one such as carpal tunnel syndrome, in which symptoms vary widely from person to person. Pp. 11-14.

(b) The Sixth Circuit erred in suggesting that, in order to prove a substantial limitation in the major life activity of performing manual tasks, a plaintiff must show that her manual disability involves a "class" of manual activities, and that those activities affect the ability to perform tasks at work. Nothing in the ADA's text, this Court's opinions, or the regulations suggests that a class-based framework should apply outside the context of the major life activity of working. While the Sixth Circuit addressed the different major life activity of performing manual tasks, its analysis erroneously circumvented Sutton, supra, at 491, by focusing on respondent's inability to perform manual tasks associated only with her job. Rather, the central inquiry must be whether the claimant is unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people's daily lives. Also without support is the Sixth Circuit's assertion that the question whether an impairment constitutes a disability is to be answered only by analyzing the impairment's effect in the workplace. That the Act's "disability" definition applies not only to the portion of the ADA dealing with employment, but also to the other provisions dealing with public transportation and public accommodations, demonstrates that the definition is intended to cover individuals with disabling impairments regardless of whether they have any connection to a workplace. Moreover, because the manual tasks unique to any particular job are not necessarily important parts of most people's lives, occupation-specific tasks may have only limited relevance to the manual task inquiry. In this case, repetitive work with hands and arms extended at or above shoulder levels for extended periods, the manual task on which the Sixth Circuit relied, is not an important part of most people's daily lives. Household chores, bathing, and brushing one's teeth, in contrast, are among the types of manual tasks of central importance to people's daily lives, so the Sixth Circuit should not have disregarded respondent's ability to do these activities. Pp. 14-17.224 F.3d 840, reversed and remanded.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Opinion of the Court

Justice O'Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA or Act), 104 Stat. 328, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (1994 ed. and Supp. V), a physical impairment that "substantially limits one or more major life activities" is a "disability." 42 U.S.C. § 12102 (2)(A) (1994 ed.). Respondent, claiming to be disabled because of her carpal tunnel syndrome and other related impairments, sued petitioner, her former employer, for failing to provide her with a reasonable accommodation as required by the ADA. See §12112(b) (5)(A). The District Court granted summary judgment to petitioner, finding that respondent's impairments did not substantially limit any of her major life activities. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that the impairments substantially limited respondent in the major life activity of performing manual tasks, and therefore granting partial summary judgment to respondent on the issue of whether she was disabled under the ADA. We conclude that the Court of Appeals did not apply the proper standard in making this determination because it analyzed only a limited class of manual tasks and failed to ask whether respondent's impairments prevented or restricted her from performing tasks that are of central importance to most people's daily lives.

I

Respondent began working at petitioner's automobile manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, in August 1990. She was soon placed on an engine fabrication assembly line, where her duties included work with pneumatic tools. Use of these tools eventually caused pain in respondent's hands, wrists, and arms. She sought treatment at petitioner's in-house medical service, where she was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and bilateral tendinitis. Respondent consulted a personal physician who placed her on permanent work restrictions that precluded her from lifting more than 20 pounds or from "frequently lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds," engaging in "constant repetitive flexion or extension of [her] wrists or elbows," performing "overhead work," or using "vibratory or pneumatic tools." Brief for Respondent 2; App. 45-46.

In light of these restrictions, for the next two years petitioner assigned respondent to various modified duty jobs. Nonetheless, respondent missed some work for medical leave, and eventually filed a claim under the Kentucky Workers' Compensation Act. Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §342.0011 et seq. (1997 and Supp. 2000). The parties settled this claim, and respondent returned to work. She was unsatisfied by petitioner's efforts to accommodate her work restrictions, however, and responded by bringing an action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky alleging that petitioner had violated the ADA by refusing to accommodate her disability. That suit was also settled, and as part of the settlement, respondent returned to work in December 1993.

Upon her return, petitioner placed respondent on a team in Quality Control...

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