Supreme Court Rulings Affect Employers

June 24, 1999

Supreme Court Rulings Affect Employers

This week's Supreme Court decisions on two cases involving sexual harrassment and discrimination against people with disabilities will have enormous impact on employee and employer rights and obligations.

The ruling on Kolstad v. American Dental Association makes it easier for employees to collect punitive damages when they file suit for sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law prohibiting discrimination based on sex. The court ruled the plaintiff doesn't have to prove the employer's conduct was done with malice or reckless indifference. The employee now only has to prove the employer knew the actions might violate federal law. Because punitive damages can be as high as $300,000 in this kind of case, the Kolstad ruling stresses the importance that employers understand their legal obligations and employees' legal rights. (Read "Avoid Sexual Harassment," Professional Jeweler, April 1998.)

In the second ruling, actually three cases decided together, the court ruled eligibility for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act must be determined by looking at an individual's disability in its corrected form. Previous rulings and federal guidelines suggested just the opposite. The cases were Sutton v. United Airlines, Murphy v. UPS and Albertsons v. Kirkingburg.

In Sutton, United Airlines denied two plaintiffs jobs as airline pilots because they were severely nearsighted. They claimed their nearsightedness constituted a disability, and they sued the airline. With corrective lenses, however, they both had 20/20 vision. The court ruled they were not disabled, not entitled to protection under the act and could be fired or not hired in the first place.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the majority opinion that Congress intended the ADA to cover the 43 million Americans with physical or psychological disabilities, not the 117 million more who would have disabilities if their conditions were not treated. This is a change many labor law experts did not expect. It means millions of Americans who thought they were protected by ADA are not.

- by William H. Donahue Jr.