Irving Miller, an employment law attorney with Akerman, Senterfitt & Eidson in Miami, disagrees. "The framers of the ADA had the most altruistic motives in mind," he says. "They believed people with disabilities weren't getting access to the working world." But in practice, he contends, most of those who sue under the ADA aren't really disabled. "Anyone fired at work finds a way to tie it to some protected category."
"These decisions are going to cut down considerably on the number of frivolous lawsuits filed against employers by people with all kinds of phantom disabilities," predicts Miller, who worked for the EEOC for 15 years before entering private practice. He contends that the decisions will discourage plaintiffs' attorneys, who are typically paid a percentage of the damages, from taking disability discrimination cases that really have no merit.
So what's the message that employers need to consider? Experts offer the following observations:
- Be aware. "You definitely need to be aware of potential ADA issues," says Kearns. While businesses with 15 or fewer employees are presently not covered by the ADA, state laws may have lower thresholds. California's equivalent, for instance, applies to businesses with five or more employees.
- Don't assume. "The fact that someone has an impairment or needs correction doesn't mean he or she is disabled," Kearns adds. Nor does it mean this person isn't disabled. An employee taking medication for a heart problem might function normally, or might not be able to walk 10 steps without resting. Disability questions must be decided on a case-by-case basis.
- Expect fewer lawsuits. The Supreme Court precedent should discourage frivolous lawsuits over disabilities, without doing harm to those who genuinely need the protection of the ADA. For those cases that fall in between, Colker predicts employers will be in a stronger position for settlement.
- Consider appeals. "If your business has recently lost an ADA case, talk to a lawyer about appealing," Colker says. Because the rulings are an authoritative interpretation of existing law, prior cases could be affected if appealed now.
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