Supremes To Tackle Key Employment Issues

September 25, 2001 ( - Next week the Supreme Court begins its 2001-2002 term, with a calendar packed with employment-oriented issues.

That agenda includes cases dealing with the independent review of HMO decisions, the reach of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the landmark 1995 Adarand Decision involving minority preferences in government contracting.

Americans with Disabilities Tested

In Toyota vs. Williams (see Disability Law Limits to be Tested  ), the Supreme Court will rule on whether workers who can’t perform some of their duties because of a limited impairment are “disabled” under the law.

The case involves former Toyota Motor Corp. employee Ella Williams, who worked as an engine builder for Ford in the early 1990s. She developed carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis and claimed that her ailments amounts to a disability, demanding that the company accommodate her by assigning her different duties.

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati, deeming her “disabled” under the statute, clearing the way for her suit.

And Tested Again

In a an ADA case against US Airways Group, the high court will decided whether companies are required to accommodate disabled workers by moving them into jobs reserved for more senior employees.

The carrier argues that assigning employee Robert Barnett, who injured his back while handling cargo at the San Francisco airport in 1990, to a less-demanding mailroom job, would upset its seniority system.

A federal appeals court ordered Barnett’s case to trial, ruling that the airline?s seniority system, which wasn’t based on a collective bargaining agreement, didn’t bar his transfer to the mailroom.

Patients’ Rights Debate

The new term will also see the high court ruling on issues related to the controversial patients’ rights debate (See our PBOR page ) . In Rush Prudential HMO vs. Moran, justices will consider an Illinois law that allows independent review of HMO treatment decisions (see Supremes To Weigh In On HMO Review ). Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar measures.

Debra Moran sued her HMO to recover payments she made for surgery to correct a shoulder ailment. The HMO had recommended a less expensive procedure and declined to pay even after an independent reviewing physician said the plaintiff should receive the more costly treatment.

A federal appeals court in Chicago, considering an appeal by a unit of Wellpoint Health Networks, upheld the statute. However, a similar statute in Texas was rejected by an appeals court, which ruled that it was trumped by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

Affirmative Action

The high court will also revisit a retooled program that helps minority-owned and disadvantaged businesses land highway Program at construction jobs. The appeal, Adarand vs. Mineta (see more at Justices to Revisit Affirmative Action in Adarand Case) , arose from a Colorado company that challenged the Transportation Department program more than a decade ago, following the loss of a bid to build guardrails on a federal road project.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that affirmative-action initiatives must be “narrowly tailored to remedy specific past discrimination.”

Congress and the Transportation Department have since taken several steps to fit the road program within the high court’s guidelines. With those changes in place, the program passed constitutional muster, a federal appeals court in Denver ruled last year.<</p>