April 12, 2006

State Law, Stronger than ADA, Gives Far-Reaching Win in Maine

"This changes the landscape. It's a pretty earth-shaking decision," David Webbert told reporters. Webbert, the Augusta lawyer who represented the Maine AFL-CIO before the state supreme court, added that "the federal law had been so gutted that the state law is incredibly important in giving people with disabilitiies in Maine a chance for justice."

Why the excitement? Maine's state supreme court ruled on Tuesday that a discrimination claim based on a physical or mental disability "need not require the complainant to show a substantial limitation on a major life activity."

The victory is a far-reaching one, say advocates and legal experts, because the federal disability antidiscrimination law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, has kept victims of discrimination from being able to have their day in federal court simply because language in the law and court rulings have insisted that in order to be able to file a suit, a vicitim of discrimination must first be able to show that they have "substantial limitiation in a major life activity" and thus are "truly disabled."

The Maine court's decision was possible because that state's anti-discrimination law, the Maine Human Rights Act, is stronger than the ADA, and is worded in a different manner.

The lawsuit was brought by a Wal-Mart employee, Stanley Whitney, who was removed from his management job because high blood pressure and "possibly serious" heart disease did not allow him to work the minimum number of hours the job required.

Naturally, Wal-Mart argued his case should be thrown out of court ("summary judgement") because he wasn't "disabled." This is the tactic businesses use with the ADA.

It didn't work this time, though.

From the Associated Press:

The federal magistrate judge who heard the case recommended a summary judgment in Wal-Mart's favor on grounds that Maine's disability discrimination law provided no remedy for Whitney unless he could establish that his disability substantially limited a major life activity.

But instead of endorsing that recommendation, U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby opted to ask the state supreme court to weigh in with its interpretation of the Maine Human Rights Act.

In finding that a showing of substantial limitation is not required, the court decided that Maine's language is not consistent with that of the corresponding federal statute, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which critics say has blocked many disability-related cases from getting a court hearing. (Read complete story).

According to the Associated Press, businesses are angry at the ruling and will try to force the legislature to change the Maine Human Rights Law to conform to the weaker federal ADA, which makes victims of disability discrimination a climb a higher hurdle in order to bring a lawsuit.

Posted on April 12, 2006