Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc.

PETITIONER: Sutton
RESPONDENT: United Air Lines, Inc.
LOCATION: Knowles' Car

DOCKET NO.: 97-1943
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 527 US 471 (1999)
ARGUED: Apr 28, 1999
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1999

ADVOCATES:
Edwin S. Kneedler - For the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
Roy T. Englert, Jr. - Argued the cause for the respondents
Van Aaron Hughes - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton (the Suttons) are identical twins who suffer from acute visual myopia. They brought suit against United Airlines (United) under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. Section12101 et seq., after United failed to hire them as commercial airline pilots because their uncorrected vision was worse than 20/100. Although each sister suffered from severe myopia, their vision was correctable with glasses and both sisters were able to function normally in their daily lives. The Suttons claimed that they were disabled within the meaning of the ADA either because, under 42 U.S.C. Section12102(2)(A), they suffered from a physical impairment that "substantially limits . . . major life activities," or because, under 42 U.S.C. Section12102(2)(C), they were regarded as having such an impairment. The district court granted United's 12(b)(6) motion and dismissed the Suttons' complaint for failure to state a claim for which relief could be granted.

Question

(1) Should the determination of disability under 42 U.S.C. Section12102(2)(A) be made without reference to corrective measures that mitigate the impairment? (2) Is poor vision regarded as an impairment that substantially limits the Suttons in a major life activity?

Media for Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 28, 1999 in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 22, 1999 in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinions of the Court in three cases will be announced by Justice O'Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

The first of these is another Americans with Disabilities Act case; Sutton versus United Airlines.

The case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act which several others have been referring to this morning as the ADA.

It prohibits certain employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their disabilities.

This case concerns the meaning of the term disability as it has used in the Act.

The ADA defines the term to me among other things "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or being regarded as having such an impairment".

Consequently, individuals have disabilities within the meaning of the ADA if they have actual substantially limiting impairments or are regarded as having such.

The petitioners here are twin sisters, both of whom have severe myopia.

With the use of corrective measures such as glasses or contact lenses, both have 20-20 vision.

In 1992, they applied to the respondent, a major commercial airline, for employment, as commercial airline pilots.

The respondent invited them to an interview, but during their interviews both petitioners were told they could not work as pilots with United Airlines because they could not meet the respondent's minimum vision requirement, which is uncorrected visual acuity of 20/100 or better.

Subsequently, the petitioners filed a complaint claiming that the respondent discriminated against them on the basis of their actual disability, their poor eye sight.

Alternatively, the petitioners claim they were discriminated against on the basis of a disability they didn't have, but were regarded as having.

The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed, and in an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we also affirm.

We hold that whether an individual is actually disabled should be made with reference to any measures that the individual uses to mitigate the impairment.

Three separate provisions of the ADA, read in concert, lead us to this conclusion: First, because the ADA's definition of disability as phrased in the present indicative; the definition should be read as requiring that a person be presently, not potentially or hypothetically, substantially limited in order to demonstrate a disability; second, the ADA by its terms requires the disabilities be evaluated with respect to an individual.

If individuals were evaluated in some hypothetical uncorrected state however they would be evaluated as members of a group.

Finally, and most importantly, Congress included in the Act its finding that 43 million Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities

But if the disabilities were determined without reference to corrective measures there would be over a 160 million disabled individuals.

Consequently, we hold that plaintiffs under the ADA must be evaluated in their corrected state, that is in this case with their corrective lenses to determine whether they are disabled, because with corrective lenses petitioners have 20-20 vision, they are not substantially limited in any major life activity, and are not actually disabled.

That's not the end of the case however, because if the petitioners can show that they are regarded as having a disability that they do not have, they are disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

Petitioners alleged that respondent's vision requirement itself demonstrates they are regarded as having substantially limiting impairments, but physical requirements do not by themselves violate the ADA.

Employers are free to prefer some physical attributes over others so long as those attributes do not rise to the level of substantially limiting impairments.

An employer is free to decide that some physical characteristics that are not impairments are preferable to others.

Just as the employer is free to decide that some limiting but not substantially limiting impairments make individuals less than ideally suited for a job.

Similarly, the petitioner's allegation that the respondent mistakenly believes their eyesight substantially limits their ability to work as global airline pilots is insufficient to state a claim that the respondent regards and is disabled.

Assuming without deciding that work is a major life activity to be substantially limited in this activity one must be significantly restricted in the ability to work.

Petitioners cannot claim to be so limited because they alleged only that they are regarded as unable to work as global airline pilot, which is a single job, not a class of jobs.