Law School Case Brief
Albertson's, Inc. v. Kirkingburg - 527 U.S. 555, 119 S. Ct. 2162 (1999)
There is a statutory obligation to determine the existence of disabilities on a case-by-case basis. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C.S. § 12101 et seq., expresses that mandate clearly by defining "disability" "with respect to an individual," 42 U.S.C.S. § 12102(2), and in terms of the impact of an impairment on "such individual," 42 U.S.C.S. § 12102(2)(A).
Respondent Hallie Kirkingburg, a truckdriver who had been hired by petitioner Albertson's, Inc., a grocery store chain, was examined to see whether he met basic visual acuity standards set by the Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) for commercial truckdrivers. Although Kirkingburg had amblyopia—an uncorrectable condition that left him with 20/200 vision in his left eye and thus effectively monocular vision—and his vision as measured did not in fact meet the DOT minimum requirement, a physician erroneously certified that he met the DOT standards, and he started to work for Albertson's. After the Kirkingburg's vision was correctly assessed at a subsequent physical and Kirkingburg was denied DOT certification, he applied for a waiver pursuant to a DOT program under which some drivers who had deficient vision but who met various conditions could be given certification. However, Albertson's fired Kirkingburg for failing to meet the DOT standards and refused to rehire him after he received a waiver from the DOT. Kirkingburg filed suit against Albertson's in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, claiming that his firing violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which provided that: (1) no covered employer shall discriminate against a "qualified employee with a disability," and; (2) a "qualified individual with a disability" was an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual held or desired. In granting summary judgment for Albertson's, the district court concluded that for purposes of the ADA: (1) because Kirkingburg could not meet the basic DOT vision standards, he was not "qualified" for his job without an accommodation, and; (2) giving Kirkingburg time to get a DOT waiver was not a required "reasonable accommodation." However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, expressing the view that Kirkingburg had established a disability under an ADA provision, which defined a disability as an impairment which substantially limited a major life activity, by demonstrating that the manner in which he saw differed significantly from the manner in which most people saw and compliance with DOT regulations could not be used as the justification for Albertson's vision standard, as the waiver program was a legitimate part of the DOT's regulatory scheme. Lastly, the Ninth Circuit held that although Albertson's was free to set a vision standard different from the DOT's if such an independent standard could be justified under the ADA, such justification could not be shown under the circumstances presented in the case.
Did Kirkingburg qualify for a disability under the ADA and was Albertson's liable for violating the ADA?
The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the appellate court's decision. It held that: (1) the court of appeals erred in finding that Kirkingburg had a disability under § 12102(2)(A) without identifying the degree of visual loss suffered by Kirkingburg; (2) under the ADA, an employer who required as a job qualification that the employee meet an otherwise applicable federal safety regulation that tended to exclude persons with disabilities did not have to justify enforcing the regulation solely because the standard may be waived experimentally in an individual case; and (3) with respect to Kirkingburg's ADA rights, the regulations establishing the DOT's waiver program did not modify the content of the basic visual acuity standards in a way that disentitled Albertson's to insist on the basic standards, for: (a) the general standard was based on a considered determination about the level of visual acuity needed for safe operation of commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce, while the waiver program was simply a means of obtaining information bearing on the justifiability of revising the existing standards, and; (b) it was not credible that Congress enacted the ADA with the understanding that employers choosing to respect the government's sole substantive visual acuity regulation in the face of an experimental waiver might be burdened with an obligation to defend the regulation's application according to the regulation's own terms. Moreover, the Court held that Albertson's was not required to justify enforcing the federal regulation when a waiver was available. The Court found that the waiver regulation was an experiment, did not rest on any conclusion that a waiver was conducive to public safety, and did not modify the substantive content of the general acuity regulation. Nothing in the waiver regulation required Albertson's to participate in the experiment.
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