May, 2002 Issue of Legal Trends
Legal Trends Highlights Recent Cases In Employment Law.
Legal Trends Features ADA Developments.
In this issue of Legal Trends, we analyze two recent cases from the United States Supreme Court regarding the Americans With Disabilities Act, known as the ADA. This issue also updates a development in a whistleblowing case, and spotlights a recent personal injury verdict.
Supreme Court Again Defines Who Is Disabled.
In 1990, Ella Williams joined Toyota Motor Manufacturing as a factory worker. Williams developed carpal tunnel syndrome and brought an ADA claim against Toyota. The parties settled the case, and Toyota reassigned Williams to an inspection group. She was reassigned again, and Williams complained that the new job aggravated her symptoms.
Williams sought an accommodation - she wished to be transferred back to her old job. Toyota refused to transfer her, and Williams stopped coming to work. Toyota fired her in 1997, and Williams filed another suit under the ADA, for failure to accommodate.
The trial court dismissed her claim, finding that Williams was not disabled under the ADA. Specifically, the lower court concluded that since Williams could perform manual tasks such as housecleaning and gardening, she was not covered by the federal law.
Williams appealed, and succeeded temporarily. The appellate court reasoned that Williams' carpal tunnel syndrome limited her from performing the "major life activity" of performing manual tasks.
Williams' case wound up before the United States Supreme Court. The high court overturned the appellate court, stating that the correct standard was whether Williams' impairment severely restricted her from performing "activities that are of central importance to most people's daily lives." Thus, the high court reasoned, it was improper for the lower court to exclusively focus on what Williams could do at her job. Williams will have to continue her fight at the trial court level.
High Court Holds Seniority Systems Take Precedence Over Disabled Workers.
In 1994, Robert Barnett, a baggage handler for US Airways, filed suit against his former employer when he lost his mailroom job to a more senior employee who applied for his job. Barnett had worked in the position since he became disabled four years earlier. Barnett had requested an accommodation from US Airways by asking it to deviate from its seniority system.
Barnett claimed that his employer violated the ADA by failing to accommodate his disability. The trial court ruled against him, reasoning that the system had been in place for decades, and that deviation from the policy would cause the company undue hardship.
Barnett appealed, and the appellate court sided with him. The court reasoned that a company's seniority system was one of a number of factors that courts would have to consider in determining whether an undue hardship would be imposed upon the company.
US Airways took the case to the high court. In a decision handed down late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court held that disabled employees are not typically entitled to job accommodations over workers who have more seniority. The high court reasoned that an employer's seniority system "will prevail in the run of cases." A disabled employee, however, may prevail over a worker with more seniority if he could establish "special circumstances" that would make the job assignment reasonable.
Developments in TAP Pharmaceutical Whistleblower Case.
In an update to a story initially featured in the September, 2001 issue of Legal Trends, a former sales representative and a corporation have been sentenced as a result of Douglas Durand's whistleblowing case. As reported earlier, Durand filed suit under the False Claims Act because he alleged that his employer overbilled government insurers for the drug Lupron. The case netted a record settlement against TAP Pharmaceutical Products, Inc. Durand was to personally receive $77 million of the settlement.
After pleading guilty to a charge of conspiracy, TAP was sentenced to five years probation, and agreed to pay an additional $290 million in fines. A former sales representative, Scott Hidalgo, who also pled guilty, was similarly sentenced to five years probation, and fined $300,000.
Personal Injury Law
Parents Sue MIT Over Daughter's Suicide.
In a case of first impression, the parents of a student attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have filed suit against the university after their daughter committed suicide in April, 2000.
Elizabeth Shin was a biology major at MIT. Shin was a frequent visitor to the school's mental health unit, where she often showed up with cuts on her arms and wrists. She often threatened suicide. Her parents, who visited her the day before she took her life, claimed that they were unaware of their daughter's mental illness.
The parents recently filed suit against the college, MIT administrators, police officers and others, claiming that they were negligent in failing to prevent their daughter's death. The suit also alleged that the school's mental health unit failed to properly diagnose, treat and coordinate their daughter's mental health care.
MIT, while sympathetic to the Shins for their loss, has indicated that it will defend against the claims. In claiming that it was not responsible, MIT has stated that Shin's emotional problems started in high school.
Jury Verdict For Airline Passenger Who Suffered From Emotional Distress.
In what is believed to be a record jury verdict, a federal jury has handed a Delta Air Lines passenger a $1.25 million verdict for emotional distress after a traumatic flight over Ohio in 1996.
Passenger Kathy Weaver of Billings, Montana, boarded Flight 37 at Heathrow Airport in London on November 7, 1996. The plane's destination was Cincinnati. During the flight, the crew briefed the passengers for a possible crash, and one flight attendant told a passenger that "we're going to die."
The plane did not crash, but performed an emergency landing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Weaver filed suit in 1998, claiming that emotionally, she never recovered from the experience.
Delta promised not only to appeal the jury's verdict, but a judge's earlier ruling allowing the suit to proceed at all. According to Delta, it claims that the suit could only go forward if there was "bodily injury."
On The Louder Side
A singer named Dusty has filed suit against Internet giant Yahoo for allegedly appropriating his trademark yodel used in the company's commercials. The singer claims that he was paid $590 to record the "yahoo" yodel in 1996, and claims copyright protection. He is seeking $5 million in damages.
Eugene Hollander addressed attorneys and human resource professionals at a seminar in April, 2002, "Employment Discrimination Update in Illinois." The seminar was sponsored by the National Business Institute.
The Law Offices of Eugene K. Hollander
LEGAL TRENDS, May, 2002
About the author:
Eugene Hollander is a trial attorney with over ten years experience. Mr. Hollander has tried numerous cases in the state and federal courts, and currently heads his own law office in Chicago. The Law Offices of Eugene K. Hollander is a full service law firm, concentrating its practice in the prosecution and defense of employment discrimination claims, personal injury and medical malpractice suits, and also engages in various types of commercial litigation. For more information, contact us directly at:
The Law Offices of Eugene K. Hollander
33 N. Dearborn, Suite 2300
Chicago, IL 60602
Copyright © 2003 The Law Offices of Eugene K. Hollander. This publication may be considered advertising material under the Illinois Code of Professional Responsibility and is not intended to create any attorney-client relationship. The reader should not rely upon any statement or opinion as legal advice, but rather, should consider it as generally informative.