What's The Meaning?

Court V. EEOC

"The ADA isn't meant to guarantee every individual the ability to get every job that's out there," says employment law specialist Jennifer Kearns, a partner with Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison LLP in San Diego. Kearns notes that the June 22 decisions are especially significant because the Supreme Court calls into question the interpretive guidelines promulgated to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). "We have the statute--the ADA--plus the whole body of EEOC guidelines and regulations," she says.

While employers have taken for granted that EEOC regulations have the force of law, the Supreme Court opinion specifically overruled one EEOC guideline by stating that the decision whether someone is disabled should take into account corrective measure. The court even stated that the EEOC's regulation to the contrary is "an impermissible interpretation of the ADA." On another issue, whether the EEOC's definition of "major life activity" includes working, the justices noted that they were not ruling on whether the regulations were valid. "I think that's a red flag for issues that are going to be litigated in the future," Kearns says.

Law professor Ruth Colker of The Ohio State University College of Law in Columbus and co-author of The Law of Disability Discrimination (Anderson Publishing), the leading casebook on the ADA, considers the rulings a watershed. She explains that the ADA only allows people to sue under the act if they meet the definition for being disabled. Anyone can sue over alleged discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, leaving it to the courts to decide whether or not discrimination took place. Under the ADA, however, people who don't meet the definition of being disabled aren't permitted to sue. "These decisions raise the threshold," says Colker, who contends the court's decision runs contrary to the intent of Congress in framing the ADA.

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This article was originally published in the September 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: What's The Meaning?.

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