Typing Not A Major Life Activity Under ADA: 9th Circuit

August 20, 2001 (PLANSPONSOR.com) ? A newspaper reporter unable to use a computer keyboard due to repetitive stress injuries was nonetheless barred from a recovery under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), according to a federal court.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-to-1 last week that Fresno Bee reporter Jacalyn Thornton didn’t meet the burden of showing she was “substantially limited” in major life activities, including her ability to work or perform manual labor, according to the Recorder.

“In this case, Thornton was able to perform a wide range of manual tasks, including grocery shopping, driving, making beds, doing laundry and dressing herself,” Judge Michael Daly Hawkins said, writing for the majority in Thornton v. McClatchy Newspapers. “Her inability to type and write for extended periods of time is not sufficient to outweigh the large number of manual tasks that she can perform.”

Still Hope?

However, Thornton may still get her day in court according to the report. The case will proceed on claims filed under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, which now contains a lesser standard than the one imposed under federal law. The amendment, which went into effect in January, requires only a showing that a plaintiff suffered “limitation” rather than “substantial limitation,” as required under federal law.

The judges in this instance unanimously remanded that portion of the case to the district court to determine if the amended state law can be applied retroactively to the facts of this case.

Case History

Thornton had worked for McClatchy Newspapers for 24 years but in 1994 filed worker’s compensation claims alleging repetitive stress injuries. Her employer made a number of accommodations, including:

  • workstation adjustments
  • new chairs
  • modified work schedules
  • a gym membership.

Thornton filed additional claims several years later when her condition worsened, and the company granted her an extended leave. Finally, in 1997, the company reportedly contemplated other alternatives, including voice recognition technology and reassignment ? but ultimately decided those were not viable and terminated Thornton.

She filed her discrimination suit the same year, alleging that McClatchy violated the ADA and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Trial Docket

The district court granted summary judgment for McClatchy on the ground that Thornton didn’t show she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

On appeal, Thornton contended that her employer regarded her as disabled, pointing to the numerous instances of accommodation as proof. However, the majority not only found no evidence of “substantial limitation,” it also held that the employer’s steps to accommodate her should not be taken as proof she was disabled.

Writing in dissent, Judge Marsha Berzon said the majority’s ruling ignores the reality that computers and the ability to type and write are essential skills in the modern world.

“It should not be necessary to prove that the ability to use one’s arms and hands to produce, by computer (or by handwriting), written communications and records is a manual skill of enormous importance in our literate and technological society.” She also noted a 1997 report that about half of all Americans use computers at work.