A wise law-school professor once told her advanced constitutional law class that you never win a case on the facts; you win based solely on how you classify those facts. If you want to win a free speech case, classify that banned speech as "political speech" (which receives heightened protection), even if the speaker in question is a topless dancer.
And if you want to win an Americans With Disabilities Act case, classify carpal tunnel syndrome as a "disability," even if Justice Scalia is firmly of the belief that disability requires a wheelchair or a white cane. Toyota v. Williamsis a case in which there are almost no facts in dispute. A Toyota worker by the name of Ella Williams who had carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis was unable to perform some of her required assembly-line tasks at the company plant in Georgetown, Ky. Toyota wouldn't transfer her to a less physically demanding quality control job. Williams' assembly-line job involved gripping a block of wood with a sponge attached to the end and wiping down passing cars with "highlight" oil at the rate of approximately one car per minute, requiring her to keep her hands and arms consistently up around shoulder height over several hours. In addition to offering those of us buried inside the Beltway a fascinating insight into where that glossy shine on your new Camry comes from, the above facts make one wonder how long anyone could do Williams' job without becoming disabled. When
What the parties in this case can't agree on is how to assemble and categorize all these facts as a matter of law. Plaintiff Williams argues that she is clearly "disabled" under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations interpreting the
So, what is a disability under the
Because terms like "disability," "major life activity," and "manual tasks" are so elastic as to be almost infinite, Toyota warns that if the court doesn't clearly define and limit them today, Americans will soon be making ADA claims just because they wear glasses or because, like Williams (who is only 5 feet tall), they are too short to comfortably oil down a new car. John G. Roberts, a Bush nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for Toyota today emphasizes that you can't look at the whole classification of "manual tasks" by scrutinizing a handful of assembly-line activities, such as sponge-gripping. Urging the court to recall that the correct test for a disability is "substantial limit on a major life activity," he argues that the inability to wipe down cars should not be classed in that category.
Justice Stevens expresses concern over the fact that Williams' condition apparently bars her from access to over 50 percent of the labor market. Roberts disputes this, suggesting that she is only barred from between 10 percent to 15 percent of the job market. He says the 6th Circuit "artificially narrowed" the manual task provision, such that it becomes a circular definition, with "manual tasks" meaning any specialized part of one's job one is unable to perform.
O'Connor wonders, wisely, whether looking at "substantial limitations" includes evaluation only of what one can't do, or also of what one can do. Roberts lists the tasks Williams can perform, as a way to prove that she isn't substantially limited: "She can brush her teeth," he says, she can make breakfast, she can do laundry and clean. Which is great if she's seeking work as an Afghan mail-order bride.
Roberts argues that the 6th Circuit erred in assuming that just because Williams couldn't perform certain tasks (lifting weights of over 20 pounds, operating pneumatic tools, lifting her hands above heart level), she was precluded from household chores. Breyer says he has no problem with the court making such assumptions; "we say you can't be a watchman because you're blind" he says, adding that if Williams can't do her job because she can't lift her hands above her head, he's comfortable assuming she cannot do other major life activities either.
Roberts replies that Williams can do household chores, she just can't do repetitive assembly-line jobs (like the one his client was requiring her to do?) so that while Williams is not disabled enough to be disabled, she is still too disabled to do her job. He adds that "disability" does not turn on your job description. It turns on your ability to walk, see, breathe, and so on. Stevens responds that by shoveling non-work impairments into the classification of disability,
At this point the entire press corps is shaking their wrists and rolling their necks because the frenzied note-taking of thousands of oral arguments is taking a toll. We start looking at each other wondering, silently, who can I sue? Who can I sue?
Barbara McDowell, assistant to the solicitor general, also defends
Adds Scalia: "They'd have to paint floors, presumably."
Again Justice O'Connor asks the question du jour: "How does a court weigh manual tasks? How does a fact finder decide which manual tasks are sufficiently important?" McDowell replies with a modified Potter Stewart know-it-when-I-see-it test: These are "functions important to everyday life ... like gripping a pen right." Which may be essential to an assistant solicitor general's life, but not all that crucial for, say, a break dancer.
Robert L. Rosenbaum, arguing for Williams, says that she is not precluded from a single assembly-line job, but from a whole range of activities, including recreation, household chores, and living generally. Rosenbaum gets in trouble trying to distance his own position from that taken by the 6th Circuit. Chief Justice Rehnquist asks him which part of their opinion he disagrees with, laughing, "They ruled for your client." When Justice Kennedy asks if the 6th Circuit's interpolations about disabilities affect a "class of activities," Rosenbaum calls that language "superfluous."
"I'll ex that out of the opinion then," says Kennedy, shaking his head. "I thought that was the heart of the opinion." For Rosenbaum, the heart of this case is that the EEOC includes the inability to perform "manual tasks" in their definition of a major life activity, and that under this definition his client is disabled.
Scalia expresses doubt that Williams' inability to perform certain tasks, for long periods, over shoulder height, constitutes a limitation on manual tasks. He later adds, "Congress did not think half the population would be covered [under the
Rosenbaum urges an individualized inquiry, not into which illness constitutes a disability, but into how any one individual is able to manage life functions. "It's not enough to say she can do a lot of stuff," he says. "The