Ella Williams worked on an assembly line building engines for Toyota Motor Manufacturing beginning in 1990. Years of work with pneumatic tools eventually caused Williams pain in her wrists, arms and hands. She was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. Her doctor restricted her from lifting anything weighing more than 20 pounds and from any job that required her to raise her arms over her head or to repetitively flex and extend her elbows and wrists. Toyota reassigned her to a quality-control position where she would wipe oil onto new vehicles and visually inspect the paint job for flaws. But soon thereafter, Williams began to experience neck and shoulder pain and was diagnosed with inflammation of the muscles and tendons in her shoulder blades, nerve compression and nerve irritation that affected both arms. Williams’ doctor placed further restrictions on the tasks she could perform, and soon thereafter she was terminated. She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that Toyota failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. In 2002, the Supreme Court found that Williams’ case never should have reached the question of whether Toyota accommodated her because Williams wasn’t disabled under the law in the first place.
Williams’ story is just one of several ADA cases to reach the high court in the past decade that got civil rights advocates up in arms. If someone with Williams’ significant impairments wasn’t entitled to the protection of the law, then who was?
The upshot will be a shift in focus from the question of whether a worker was substantially impaired in a major life activity to the questions of whether the employer discriminated against the worker and whether the employer took appropriate steps to accommodate him. That greatly expands the scope of employers’ potential liabilities. “Every employment decision based on an individual’s inability to perform his or her job due to injury or illness is an ADA case waiting to happen,” Derrick says.