Robert Harris

Friday, 28 June 2002 05:57

Sorting out the ADA

A recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court could be an important victory for employers in defending against disability discrimination claims.

In Toyota Motor Mfg., Ky., Inc. v. Williams, No. 00-1089 (Jan. 8, 2002), the Supreme Court held that the appropriate standard for judging whether an individual is disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) must consider whether the impairment prevents or restricts the individual from performing tasks of central importance to most people's daily lives.

The ADA protects employees from being discriminated against because of a disability and requires employers to reasonably accommodate limitations. However, an employee must establish he or she has a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits" one or more "major life activities," which include caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing and working.

The plaintiff in Williams suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, which resulted in permanent physical limitations. Williams' job required her to rotate through four positions, two of which conflicted with her limitations. She claimed she asked to be excused from rotations that conflicted with her restrictions, but her request was denied. A short time later, she was terminated for attendance reasons.

Williams sued Toyota, claiming discrimination under the ADA. The trial court dismissed her claim on the grounds that she did not have sufficient evidence to demonstrate that her impairment substantially limited her in the major life activities of lifting, working or performing manual tasks.

Williams appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court, finding that she was disabled because she had proven her condition prevented her from doing manual tasks associated with certain classes of jobs.

Then, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Sixth Circuit's reasoning and reversed its decision. The court held that "the central inquiry must be whether the claimant is unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people's daily lives, not whether the claimant is unable to perform the tasks associated with her specific job."

The decision criticized the Sixth Circuit for treating as irrelevant evidence that Williams was able to perform household chores and tend to personal hygiene.

Elements of this ruling will impact future disability discrimination cases in several ways. First, the Supreme Court held the word "substantial" in the definition of disability "clearly precludes impairments that interfere in only a minor way with the performance of manual tasks from qualifying as disabilities," and noted the impairment's impact must be "permanent or long term."

Second, it stated the phrase "major life activities" means activities "of central importance to daily life." The court held these terms "need to be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled" to be faithful to Congressional intent regarding the appropriate reach of the ADA.

In future ADA cases, it is likely courts will give heightened scrutiny to a plaintiff's claim of being disabled and therefore deserving of the protection of the ADA. The Supreme Court's rejection of the Sixth Circuit's broad standard will likely mean that claims in which the disability grows out of an inability to perform work-related tasks will be difficult to maintain. Robert Harris is a partner specializing in labor and employment law with the law firm of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP. He can be reached at the firm's Columbus office, (614) 464-6400, or visit

Thursday, 28 October 2004 20:00

Six for the road

Many things make businesses successful. Here are six strategies to consider.


The laminated tab story

When I started working years ago, I took a training course taught by a Harvard MBA that stressed the need to have laminated tabs on the reports I issued as a consultant. My first reaction was to think that Harvard MBAs were overrated, and that the advice in the report was much more valuable than the lamination of the tabs that organized the report.

In a few short years, I began to appreciate the need for laminated tabs. Talent in business is a blend of perception and reality. It is not only what you can do (or what you can make), but also how you package it.

The laminated tabs represent a product superior in every way when compared to other products -- a product that, upon presentation, looks different, better and more valuable. First impressions matter, as does any presentation or representation of the value of your product or service.


Stick to your knitting

When I left my first real job to start a consulting practice group at a large international accounting firm, a mentor advised me that my biggest challenge would be to keep focused on my goal. When starting a business or launching a new product line, there are all kinds of things you can do, but trying to accomplish everything at once is counterproductive.

When I began to more crisply define my goals and focus my time and efforts on areas where I could sell and add value, I found success. Know your goal and focus your time and effort on the achievement of that goal.


Be a spider, man

I know; you are wondering what a spider has to do with business, or in this example, selling. A spider will spin a web to catch its prey. The next day, it will spin a web to catch its prey. And the next ... and the next.

The spider knows instinctively that it must be disciplined to spin a web each day to survive. In selling a product or service, emulate the spider's discipline. You must continually create an environment where you can survive and thrive.

Selling is not a once-in-a-while activity but a daily routine, like brushing your teeth.


The node knows all

A friend of mine jokes that there is a society of 30 people who know everyone on the planet. Have you ever met one of those people? They know everyone and can get anything.

Sales opportunities often come from the most surprising contacts -- the more contacts you have, the more surprising opportunities you will find. Actively seek networking opportunities, professional organizations and community involvement.

While some networking opportunities are better than others, the more you participate, the more you connect with potential customers. As with publicity, any networking is good networking.


You University

The more you educate people, the more they think you know. I sell my services as value, and there is nothing more helpful in making my sales than helping others through educating them.

It makes the sales prospect smarter, it creates an atmosphere where they independently reach a conclusion that they need your value and it makes you feel not like a slick salesperson but like someone who is helping the customer.


The gold standard

Watching the Olympics this summer reminded me that gold is the standard for the very best athletes. Business is no different. You do not receive gold medals, but the best get more business than their competitors.

Some work harder, some have more talent and some are better coached. But like the athlete who chooses the sport in which he or she is best, we also should chose the area in which our product or service can be the best -- the gold standard.

Sometimes it takes years to perfect or new technology comes along and allows us to compete differently, but striving to be the gold standard is what sets a successful business apart from its competitors. Define your business and set the gold standard to match your competitive advantage.


Bill Harris leads the Commercial Damages and Corporate Investigation Services Practice of CBIZ in Philadelphia. He has 15 years of experience providing financial and economic analyses, forensic investigative services, compliance assistance, damage assessments and related advisory services to attorneys, corporate management and governmental agencies. CBIZ, a publicly traded company and the 10th largest accounting firm in the nation, provides a wide range of assurance, tax and consulting services to small and mid-sized companies. Reach Harris at or (610) 862-2737.