Wilson v. Pennsylvania State Police Dept.

Decision Date26 March 1997
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 94-6547.
Citation964 F.Supp. 898
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Elizabeth K. Ainslie, Special Master, Philadelphia, PA, pro se.

Michael Churchill, Philadelphia, PA, Lisa M. Rau, Kairys, Rudovsky, Kalman & Epstein, Philadelphia, PA, for Michael Anthony Wilson.

Susan J. Forney, Office of Attorney General, Stephanie A. Middleton, Office of General Counsel, Deputy General, Harrisburg, PA, for Pennsylvania State Police Dept., Glenn A. Walt and Wayne Dowling.


RENDELL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Michael Wilson brings this class action against the Pennsylvania State Police Department, Commissioner Glenn A. Walt, individually and in his official capacity, and Wayne Dowling, the Director of Bureau of Personnel, individually and in his official capacity (collectively, "defendants"), alleging that in rejecting him and all persons similarly situated as candidates for the position of state trooper cadet, defendants acted in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (1995), and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("the Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 794 (Supp. 1996).

Plaintiff was rejected as a state trooper because he failed to meet the Pennsylvania State Police Department's visual acuity standards, which require state troopers to have uncorrected vision of at least 20/70 in one eye and 20/200 in the other eye. Plaintiff suffers from myopia, commonly known as nearsightedness, such that his uncorrected vision in each eye is 20/150. Plaintiff has submitted the expert affidavit of an optometrist, Dr. Louis Catania, who explains that "what a normally sighted person would be able to see clearly at 150 feet 1away, ... [plaintiff] would have to move up to 20 feet to see." Catania Aff., Plaintiff's Ex. D at 2. Dr. Catania also states that approximately eighty percent of the population has uncorrected vision which is better than that of plaintiff. See id. at 1.

It is undisputed that plaintiff's vision is fully correctable to 20/20 through his use of eyeglasses or contact lenses. However, in his sworn affidavit, plaintiff claims that without such corrective measures, his vision is blurred and unfocused, and he is unable to perform such routine daily tasks as driving, cooking, reading, and caring for his infant son. See Plaintiff's Aff., Ex. C at ¶¶ 6-16. Consequently, plaintiff puts on his glasses first thing in the morning, and wears either his glasses or contact lenses continuously throughout his waking hours. Id. at ¶ 8.

Plaintiff alleges that his myopia constitutes a "disability" entitling him to the protections of the ADA and the Act, and further, that he is qualified, notwithstanding his disability, to hold the position of state trooper. Defendants have moved for summary judgment, claiming that plaintiff has not met his prima facie burden as to either his disability or his qualification for this position.1

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). An issue is "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510-11, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law, id. at 248, 106 S.Ct. at 2510, and all inferences must be drawn, and all doubts resolved, in favor of the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S.Ct. 993, 994, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1962); Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 341 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1010, 106 S.Ct. 537, 88 L.Ed.2d 467 (1985).

On a motion for summary judgment, the moving party bears the initial burden of identifying for the Court those portions of the record that it believes demonstrate the absence of dispute as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552-53, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). To defeat summary judgment, the nonmoving party "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleading, but [its] response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). The non-moving party must demonstrate the existence of evidence that would support a jury finding in its favor. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49, 106 S.Ct. at 2510-11.


In order to sustain a claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must establish:

(1) that he is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA; (2) that he is qualified, that is, with or without reasonable accommodation (which he must describe), he is able to perform the essential functions of the job; and (3) that the employer terminated him because of his disability.

Milton v. Scrivner, Inc., 53 F.3d 1118, 1123 (10th Cir.1995); Chandler v. City of Dallas, 2 F.3d 1385, 1389-90 (5th Cir.1993) (describing plaintiff's comparable burden under the Rehabilitation Act), cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1011, 114 S.Ct. 1386, 128 L.Ed.2d 61 (1994).2 Only the first two elements of plaintiff's prima facie burden are at issue here, requiring examination of whether plaintiff is disabled, and if so, whether he is qualified to hold the position of state trooper.

I. Is Plaintiff "Disabled"?

Defendants initially attack plaintiff's claim by arguing that his condition, myopia, is not a disability under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act. A disability is defined under the ADA 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.

42 U.S.C. § 12102(2).3 In this case, plaintiff bases his claim of disability upon the first and third prongs of the definition: substantial limitation of major life activity and regarded as having such an impairment.

A. Substantial Limitation of Major Life Activity

With respect to the first prong, it is undisputed that plaintiff has a visual impairment. See Defs.' Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment at 4; Plaintiff's Ex. F and G (quoting Defs.' Admissions # 30-31, admitting without qualification that plaintiff has a visual impairment). In order to be considered a disability, however, the impairment must "substantially limit" one or more of plaintiff's "major life activities." 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(A).

The regulations which accompany the ADA define the term "substantially limits" as:

[]unable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform ... or ... [s]ignificantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which an individual can perform a particular major life activity as compared to the condition, manner or duration under which the average person in the general population can perform that same major life activity.

29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1) (emphasis added). See Schluter v. Industrial Coils, Inc., 928 F.Supp. 1437, 1444 (W.D.Wis.1996). The regulations thus direct me to compare plaintiff's circumstances to that of an average person in the population. "Major life activities," though not defined by statute, are defined by regulation as "functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working." 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i). See Roth v. Lutheran General Hospital, 57 F.3d 1446, 1454 (7th Cir.1995).

Since plaintiff, both in his submissions and during oral argument, has explicitly confined his arguments to the major life activity of "seeing," I will limit my analysis of his disability claim accordingly. See Plaintiff Wilson's Response to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment at 37 (noting that "[p]laintiff Wilson is claiming that the major life activity that he is substantially limited in is seeing, not working"). Plaintiff states in his affidavit that, when left without the use of his eyeglasses or contact lenses, his vision is blurred and unfocused, and he is substantially impaired in his ability to perform a number of daily activities which involve seeing, including driving, cooking, reading, and caring for his infant son. See Plaintiff's Aff., Ex. C at ¶¶ 6-16. In fact, plaintiff puts on his eyeglasses "first thing in the morning when [he] wakes up," so as not to go "any length of time without correction," and that he wears his glasses or lenses continuously during his waking hours. Id. at ¶ 8.

It is conceded that while plaintiff's condition renders him unable to see clearly in his daily life, he can do so with the aid of glasses or contact lenses. A threshold question raised in defendants' motion is this: should the determination as to substantial limitation be made with or without regard to plaintiff's use of eyeglasses or contact lenses? Defendants argue that plaintiff cannot be said to be substantially limited in seeing when, simply by donning eyeglasses or inserting contact lenses, he can perfect his vision to the 20/20 standard.

Plaintiff, however, has cited significant authority for the proposition that corrective eyewear should be disregarded in determining disability status. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), the agency charged with issuing regulations to implement Title I of the ADA, see 42 U.S.C. § 12116, has spoken to this very issue by setting forth interpretive guidelines which direct, inter alia, that "[t]he determination of whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity must be made on a case by case basis, without regard to...

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