LOCATION: Alden's Workplace
DOCKET NO.: 98-591
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 527 US 555 (1999)
ARGUED: Apr 28, 1999
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1999
Corbett Gordon - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Edward C. DuMont - Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondent
Scott N. Hunt - Argued the cause for the respondent
Facts of the case
Before starting his job as a truck driver for Albertsons Inc., Hallie Kirkingburg underwent an eye examination during which he was erroneously certified as meeting basic Department of Transportation (DOT) visual standards. Two years later, in 1992, the error of Kirkingburg's earlier diagnosis was discovered during a routine physical examination. Kinrkingburg was told that he had to obtain a DOT waiver if he wanted to continue driving. Before he could do so, however, Albertsons fired him for failing to meet minimum visual requirements and refused to rehire him even after he obtained the waiver. Kirkingburg challenged his dismissal under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On appeal from an adverse Ninth Circuit Court ruling reversing a favorable district court finding, the Supreme Court granted Albertsons certiorari.
Are all individuals with vision problems of any degree "disabled" under the Americans with Disabilities Act and, therefore, subject to its protections?
Media for Albertsons Inc. v. KirkingburgAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 28, 1999 in Albertsons Inc. v. Kirkingburg
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 22, 1999 in Albertsons Inc. v. Kirkingburg
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinion of the Court in No. 98-591, Albertsons versus Kirkingburg will be announced by Justice Souter.
David H. Souter:
This is also a case on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The respondent, Hallie Kirkingburg has a condition known as amblyopia, it leaves him with 20/200 vision in his left eye and that's effectively leaves him with monocular vision.
Before beginning a truck driver's job with the petitioner Albertsons, Kirkingburg was erroneously certified as meeting the Department of Transportation's basic vision standards for commercial truck drivers.
Those standards require corrected distant visual acuity of at least 20/40 in each eye and distant binocular acuity of at least 20/40.
When his vision was later correctly accessed, Albertsons fired him and although Kirkingburg obtained a waiver of the vision requirement under an experimental DOT program, Albertsons refused to rehire him.
Kirkingburg brought this suit asserting that Albertsons had violated the ADA.
The District Court granted summary judgment to Albertsons but the Ninth Circuit reversed concluding that Kirkingburg had established that he was disabled under the ADA by demonstrating a significant difference in the manner in which he sees.
The Circuit Court also held that although the ADA generally allows employers to rely on government regulations in setting job related qualification standards, the Department of Transportations' waiver program precluded Albertsons from doing so in this case.
In an opinion filed with the Clerk of Court today, we reverse first on the disability determination.
The ADA requires monocular individuals like others claiming the Act's protection to offer evidence showing that their impairment caused a substantial limitation on a major life activity, in this case the activity of seeing.
The Ninth Circuit, however, concluded that nearly a significant difference between the manner in which Kirkingburg sees and the manner in which most people sees sufficed.
The court also suggested that it need not take account of an individual's ability to compensate for an impairment.
But we hold today in the cases to be announced in a few moments, that mitigating measures must be taken into account in judging whether an individual has a disability.
And the Ninth Circuit finally did not pay much heed to the statutory obligation to determine a disability's existence on a case-by-case basis.
Some impairments may invariably cause a substantial limitation on a major life activity, but as we understand it, that a monocularity does not.
With respect to Albertsons' insistence that Kirkingburg need the DOT basic visual acuity standards, which would ordinarily be binding on Albertsons, the question we must answer is what effect if any of the DOTs waiver program had?
The Ninth Circuit concluded that the waiver program had in effect modified the general visual acuity standards creating a different safety standard made applicable by granting a waiver, which an employer was not free to disregard.
By its own terms, however, the waiver program was simply an experiment proposed by the angecy as it means for obtaining data in order to consider relaxing the general visual acuity standards.
Those standards remain unchanged at the time Albertsons made its employment decision and the regulatory record made clear that the waiver program did not stand on the same substantive ground as the basic standards.
The ADA does not require an employer to defend its decision not to participate in such an experiment, it is simply not credible with Congress enacted the ADA with the understanding that employers choosing to respect the government's sole visual acuity regulation in the face of an experimental waiver might be burden for the obligation to defend the regulations application according to its own terms.
We therefore hold that an employer who requires as a job qualification, that an employee need an otherwise applicable federal safety regulation is not required by the ADA to justify enforcing the regulation solely because it may be waived experimentally in an individual case.
Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer have joined only parts one and three of this opinion and Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion.