Americans with Disabilities Act Case Summary.

Albertsons v Kirkingburg

If a company sets qualifications for a job in line with federal standards, does a worker still qualify for that job if he or she gets a federal waiver from those standards? Also, what constitutes a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act? If a person walks or talks differently, does that make them disabled?

These questions were raised in the 1999 Supreme Court case of Albertsons Inc. v. Hallie Kirkingburg, in which a truck driver received a waiver for his vision disability, but his employer still fired him for not meeting company standards based on those set by the Department of Transportation.

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Case Background

In 1990, the grocery store chain Albertsons hired Hallie Kirkingburg as a truck driver for its Portland, Oregon warehouse. Kirkingburg came to the job with 10 years of truck driving experience and easily passed Albertsons’ driving test.

Kirkingburg also had to pass the company’s physical exam as a part of the hiring process, which included an eye exam. Albertsons based its vision requirement for employment on the DOT standard, which states that truck drivers must have a visual acuity of at least 20/40 in each eye.

At the time, Kirkingburg had an untreatable condition known amblyopia, giving him 20/200 vision in his left eye. While this condition essentially renders him as having monocular vision, the physician performing the test incorrectly scored Kirkingburg as having met the Department of Transportation (DOT) standard and Albertsons promptly hired him.

In December 1991, Kirkingburg hurt himself at work, an injury that required a leave of absence. Prior to going back to work, Kirkingburg was asked to complete another physical as necessitated by Albertsons guidelines. This time around, the examining doctor correctly evaluated Kirkingburg’s vision and revealed that his eyesight did not satisfy the basic DOT standards. The doctor informed Kirkingburg that to be legally allowed to drive; he could get a federal waiver from the DOT under a special program starting in July 1992.
The DOT program gave driving validation to applicants with poor vision who had three years of recent commercial driving experience without a license suspension, major incident of infraction. A waiver candidate had to consent to having his vision checked yearly for deterioration, and to report information relating to his driving experience to the Federal Highway Administration, the agency in the DOT that supervises motor carrier safety laws.

The truck driver then applied for a waiver, but because he couldn’t meet the DOT standard Kirkingburg was fired from Albertsons.

In early 1993, Kirkingburg was able to obtain a waiver from the DOT for his vision. However, Albertsons refused to hire him back. Kirkingburg then filed for legal action against the company.

The District Court Case and Appeal

In his lawsuit, Kirkingburg claimed that Albertsons violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The company countered that Kirkingburg did not meet DOT standards which did not meet the job requirements as outlined in company documents, and therefore his claim does not fall under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

The District Court agreed with Albertsons, saying that the company reasonably decided that Kirkingburg qualified because he could not meet the DOT standards. The court also said that giving Kirkingburg time to get a waiver could not be considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA as the program was “a flawed experiment that has not altered the DOT vision requirements.”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court ruling on a divided basis. This time around, Albertsons asserted that Kirkingburg was not disabled based on the meaning outlined by the ADA. The appellate court rejected the new argument, saying that because Kirkingburg demonstrated he was monocular, meaning his sight “differs significantly from the manner in which most people see” he is disabled.

The Court of Appeals recognized that Albertsons persistently required its truck drivers to meet the DOT’s basic standards and that Kirkingburg could not meet them with respect to the vision standard. The court accepted that the ADA allowed Albertsons to create reasonable job-related vision standards and that Albertsons could depend on DOT rules as a basis for setting its standard. However, the company could not use conformity with a DOT regulation as the reason for its vision requirement because the waiver program was a “legitimate part of the DOT regulatory scheme.”

The Court of Appeals conceded that Albertsons was at liberty to set a vision standard different from that mandated by the DOT, but added that under the ADA, Albertsons would have to explain its independent standard as vital to preventing a health or safety threat.

Supreme Court Ruling

The Supreme Court noted that although it wasn’t relevant to the decision, they did need to “correct” missteps made by the Ninth Circuit with respect to Kirkingburg’s ‘disability.’

The Supreme Court noted that the Ninth Court said Kirkingburg sees very differently and is therefore disabled under the ADA. However, the higher court said, just because Kirkingburg sees with one eye doesn’t mean he is disabled – just different. The Supreme Court also said that they could not assume that monocularity is a disability per se because there is a range of the condition and each case needed to be evaluated on an individual basis.

In discussing the merits of the case, the Supreme Court noted that the Ninth Circuit assumed that the provisions for the waiver program had to be treated the same as the basic visual acuity regulations. The Supreme Court said this was wrong to consider waiver program as modifications to the basic visual acuity standards. The waiver program was actually an experiment to test the safety of letting those with good driving records and bad vision continue to do their job, the Court said. Therefore, the waiver program was not based on safety standards and an employer would not have to follow it to determine the health or safety threat of a person’s disability.
Based on these determinations, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Court’s decision.

Case Takeaway

The case of Albertsons Inc. v. Hallie Kirkingburg showed that individuals with a significant medical condition are not necessarily disabled. Disability under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) for these individuals should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Also, because Kirkingburg was able to find assertive technology or other compensatory tool for his condition, as shown by his driving record, he was not disabled and his ADA claim was invalid.

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