Workers with Disabilities May Enjoy Greater Protection Under State Law than Under the ADA
Under the Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA"), a "disability" is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sutton v. United Air Lines that the effects of any measures taken by a person which correct for or mitigate his or her physical or mental impairments - such as eyeglasses or medication - must be taken into account when judging whether the person is substantially limited in a major life activity and thus disabled within the meaning of the ADA. Earlier this year in Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, the U.S. Supreme Court held that to be substantially limited in performing manual tasks, a person must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts him or her from doing activities that are of central importance to most people's daily lives. Employers welcomed the decisions in Sutton and Toyota as relief from ADA claims, but they should not forget that State laws may provide broader - and potentially costly - protection to disabled workers.
For example, in Dahill v. Police Dept. of Boston, a Massachusetts state court held that although the ADA may not cover employees with correctable impairments, the state's anti-discrimination law (with language nearly identical to that in the ADA) does, and therefore employees with disabilities are protected under that state's law even if their impairments can be corrected or mitigated by devices or medication. After that ruling in Dahill , a federal jury in the following trial awarded over $800,000 to the plaintiff, who had been denied employment due to a severe hearing impairment even though his hearing was correctable to within normal limits by the use of hearing aids.
Connecticut law, like Massachusetts law, prohibits employment discrimination against persons with disabilities. When faced with issues concerning individuals who claim to be disabled, Connecticut employers would be wise to remember that the limitations of the ADA that have been widely reported in the press may not in fact provide the relief they expected.